Christian by choice

  • Nepal’s democracy cannot be divorced from respect of human conscience and the freedom of opinion
- JAGDISH ADHIKARI
Christian by choice

Jan 13, 2015-

In December, the British Ambassador to Nepal presented a list of his human rights desires in an open letter to Constituent Assembly (CA) members. The reaction to this letter concentrated solely on the British envoy’s assertion that the right to change religion be guaranteed. In response to the growing furore from political parties and sections of the media, the British Embassy issued a statement, regretting what it called a misunderstanding. Enough ink has been spilled over this diplomatic row. The reference in this case most often left implied but well understood had to do with Christianity in Nepal. The question then becomes, what about the rights of Christians as citizens of this country?

Driven by conscience

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and one among the many Christians in Nepal. I am convinced by the answers provided by the Bible to my life’s questions—the origin, the human condition, and our destiny. So Christianity, my religion, is an expression of my conscience. It is my conviction and a conscious decision. This conviction stands intact even when accused of being driven by financial lures. Such allegations, no doubt, are hurtful; they make me conscious of the shallowness of the accusations and a conspiracy of those who whip up the fear of the ‘other’ for their own motives. Not to be swayed by those, it is important to remember that the battle for the most important questions, such as the meaning of life, is fought deep in minds and hearts, not in pockets and chequebooks.

Christians are required to give away 10 percent or more of their earnings, without even expecting acknowledgement. Contrast that with allegations of financial benefits to interpret the conscience of the accusers. From my viewpoint, it is clear that such perceptions are a world apart from the truth. It is indeed true that the money Christians give goes to someone’s benefit. If you choose not to look at the heart of the giver, but see only greed in the needs of the receiver, do not forget that greed has no power to change hearts. If someone comes to befriend me for money, I would certainly not accept such an association. We are not fools to choose to live in a circle of greed. If we are increasing our herd by offering inducements, that greed will ultimately consume us.

Weapon of the majority

Changing the religion of others by force or allure is most often a tool in the hands of dominant groups in society, rather than a resource of the minority. For specific cases, one can just look through stories in the Indian media. People are testifying of being forced to convert in campaigns spearheaded by groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Ensuing stirs have even led to the disruption of the Indian Parliament. And in Pakistan, blasphemy laws (where any accusation of insulting religion triggers punishment) are used as tools by dominant groups to suppress dissent. There, a mere accusation that somebody misused a god’s name is enough to provoke reprisal. Prohibition to change religion is similar to such blasphemy laws, where the expression of any minority opinion, whether a religious or a non-religious one, can be interpreted as an insult or an attempt to change another’s religion. Such provisions only allow a handful of fanatics to incite fear among the majority and muzzle free opinion and expression.

Speaking as a Christian, what if someone convinces me that my belief is flawed, or if I start doubting that god exists? In that case, is it not my right to change my ‘religion’? Denying me that right will stifle my freedom.

There will always be extremist elements in any society. The country’s leaders are expected to protect the rights of its citizens, rather than oppress the minority by caving in to the wishes of extremists, who are more interested in making gains by inciting hatred among the unsuspecting majority. True leadership is to show the courage to prevent extremist sentiments from coming to a boil. Take the  hostage-taking incident that took place only a few weeks back in Sydney, Australia. There was every opportunity for Australian leaders to inflame a sentiment of hatred towards migrants and minorities. But Australia’s prime minister and leaders did not give in to temptations to trample upon those sections of society.    

Take a stand

Let me make an audacious claim here: it is factually incorrect to equate Christianity with the West. Asia, Latin America, and Africa have now become the bastions of Christianity. In fact, Christ was born in Asia. Most western countries are no longer Christian; they are secular. The right to change religion is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18). The European Union’s Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief makes the right to religion, including expression of religion, more sacrosanct than the freedom of expression. However, when it comes to standing up for those ideals, and protecting the right to change religion, the EU is shamelessly meek.

Nepal has chosen to be a democracy and democracy cannot be divorced from respect of human conscience and the freedom of opinion and expression. In a democracy, ideas should be allowed to flourish and diversity should be respected. If anyone differs from my view, it is their choice. If my neighbours choose to adopt a different belief system, it is their opinion and their decision. If they want to explain to me what they believe in, it is their freedom of expression. I will listen to them if I have the time and interest. After that, it is my decision whether to choose to believe them or not. Qualifying an individual’s right to make a decision with terms such as ‘inducements’ and ‘force’ only provides tools to fanatics to curb freedom of thought and belief.

Adhikari is a student at the Central Department of Environmental Science, Tribhuvan University

Published: 14-01-2015 09:19

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