Dr. K. B. Rokaya, Nepal
Member, National Human Rights Commission of Nepal(NHRC)
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and is celebrated by Christians (as well as others) worldwide on 25 December. There is no mention of Christmas in the Bible and Jesus never instructed his disciples to celebrate his birthday. The Bible instructs the followers of Jesus to celebrate his death which is celebrated as Good Friday and his resurrection as Easter Sunday.
Historians tell us that the tradition of celebrating 25 December as Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, started around 350 AD by Roman Emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity and declared Christianity as the state religion of Roman Empire around 350 AD. Before he became a Christian, Constantine was devotee of the Sun god and Christmas was the celebration of the birth of the Sun god. After his conversion to Christianity he could no more worship sun and celebrate Christmas as the birthday of sun god. He announced that Christmas be celebrated as the birth of Jesus. This is how the tradition of celebrating 25 December as the birthday of Jesus began.
In Nepal, Christians do not celebrate Christmas in a big way like in the West. On Christmas day, there is special program in all Churches with singing Christmas songs, praying, sermon from the Bible on the theme of Christmas, exchanging gifts and greetings, and partaking in love feast. In recent years, the non-Christian business community and youths in Nepal are celebrating Christmas in Western style more than Christians themselves. The presence and glamour of Christmas is being felt more after declaring Nepal as secular state in 2006 and making Christmas as public holiday by the government of Nepal since 2008. Christians in Nepal fear that Christmas may become too much commercialized like in the West and it may lose its true meaning and significance.
Situation of Christianity in Nepal:
It was recorded that in 1978 there were 800 Christians in Nepal. During Panchayat time, it was not easy for people to embrace Christianity openly as it was illegal (and it still is) to change one’s religion. Many Christians faced harassment, discrimination and persecution by family and society and many were put in prison.
After the political change in 1990, there was increased freedom of religion in practice (though the legal provision remained unchanged), Christians who were in jail for their faith were released en masse and the population of Christians started increasing. It was estimated that by the year 2000, the number of Christians in Nepal crossed 800,000. The growth rate of Christians in Nepal has been rising sharply after Nepal became a republic and a secular state. There are unverified reports that in the recently conducted population census, the number of Christians is between 1.5 and 2 million which is more than 5% of the total population.
At present there is full religious freedom in Nepal and Christians like other minority religious groups are freely practicing and propagating their faith freely and openly. But there still remain some problems like conversion from one religion to another being illegal, no clear and proper legal provision to register Churches, and the acute problem of the burial ground being faced by Christians and other religious minorities.
In the past, Christians in Nepal were focusing on preaching and Church planting and other spiritual activities with no interest in and concern for society and the country. This situation has been greatly changed by the National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN) which was founded in 1999. NCCN carried out nationwide campaign challenging Church leaders and Christians to become involved in the task of nation building by coming into the mainstream of national life.
In 2010, a new Christian forum under the name of United Christian Alliance of Nepal (UCAN) was formed as the common official voice of all the Christians in Nepal. More recently Christian Volunteers Forum (CVF) has been formed in an effort to unite and organize all Christian youths in Nepal with the objective of contributing to create a new identity of Christians in Nepal and mobilizing Christian youths for national development.
Religious Harmony in Nepal:
Nepal has not seen the kind of religious conflicts experienced by many other nations in the world. Many religions have coexisted in Nepal peacefully. Although Christians and Muslims have faced discrimination, harassment and persecution from time to time, there has not been any major religious conflicts and confrontations in Nepal. The activities, behavior and conduct of Christians were also responsible for the harassment and persecution they faced from families and society.
NCCN played important role to bring leaders from various religious groups at one place to work together on issues of common interest and concerns which resulted in the formation of the Inter-Religious Peace Committee in 2004 which was later renamed Inter-Religious Council of Nepal (IRCN) and officially registered with the government of Nepal. IRCN played important role in conflict resolution and peace building and has been instrumental in creating greater understanding, cooperation and harmony among various religious communities in Nepal. IRCN has been successful in creating a space for religious communities in society and has been recognized by the government, civil society, intellectual community, media and the international community.
Appropriate Religious Policy in Nepal:
The interim constitution of Nepal 2007 has declared Nepal as a secular state. But the concept of secularism has not yet been implemented in practice as the society and country continue to operate in the traditional manner with the President replacing the King. There has not been much debate and discussion about what secularism meant and what were its implications.
In a republic and secular Nepal, the state should keep itself separate from religion and should not interfere in religious matters. Religion should be considered purely as the right of an individual and state should treat all religions equally and impartially. The new constitution should guarantee full religious freedom which should include the freedom to believe, follow and practice the religion of one’s choice; to change from one religion to another; and freedom not to have any religion. The responsibility to organize, run, manage and maintain places of worship and religious institutions should be left to the concerned religious community. The government of a secular state should not make any provision for religious holidays of any religion. Instead fixed number of days should be given as religious or festival leave and a person can take leave to celebrate his/her religious festivals without affecting the normal life of the country. No public property of state treasury should be allowed to be used by any particular religious group as these belong to all citizens including those with no religion. The Nepal army and other security organs and public institutions need to be secularized also in order to fully respect and implement the spirit of secularism.
Christians converting other people in Nepal by giving money?
This is not true. No one can be converted to Christianity by giving money or providing any other material or non-material benefits. But there are certainly exceptions to this. Some people might have embraced Christianity for certain personal gains or some Christians might have offered certain incentives to convert others to Christianity. Definitely, as in all religions, there are always certain people who do business in the name of religion and who misuse religion for political or material gains. It is the responsibility of the state, media, intellectuals and all enlightened and conscious citizens to discourage misuse of religion for political, material or other gains. Media should not go after rumors, but should do investigative journalism and verify facts before publishing them.
The author is the General Secretary of National Council of Churches of Nepal(NCCN), Executive Committee member of United Christian Alliance of Nepal(UCAN), Founding Vice-President of Inter-Religious Council of Nepal(IRCN), President of Nepal Intellectuals Forum and Member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal(NHRC).