Nepal has a population of 30.3 million people. According to the most recent census (2011), Hindus represent 81.3% of the population, Buddhists 9%, Muslims 4.4%, and Christians 1.4%. Nepal is home to many smaller groups that count for around 5% of the population.
The 2015 Constitution identifies Nepal as a secular state, a departure from the Hindu monarchy abolished in 2008 after the 1996–2006 civil war. Despite the constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief, Nepal’s laws however are considered to be restrictive and discriminatory against non-Hindus.
In 2017, Nepal introduced new laws that not only criminalize ‘blasphemy’, but could render any public expression of belief an offense due to the overbroad nature of the formulation of the laws. According to Nepal’s Penal Code, a person convicted of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ could face up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to US$170. The provision reads:
156: Prohibition of outraging religious feelings
(1) No person shall outrage the religious feelings of any caste, race, community, or class by words, either spoken or written, by visible representation or signs or otherwise.
(2) A person who commits, or causes to be committed, the offense referred to in sub-section (1) shall be liable to a sentence of imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years and a fine not exceeding 20,000 rupees.
In addition, the broad wording of Article 158, which prohibits proselytizing, could lead to the conflation of proselytizing with ‘blasphemy’ and “hurting religious sentiments”, as changing one’s religion or questioning religious tenets may be perceived as an insult to another’s religion. Of particular concern in this regard is clause 2, which reads:
“(2) No person shall do any act or conduct that undermines the religion, opinion, or faith of any caste, race, or community or convert anyone into another religion, whether by inducement or not, in a manner to so undermine or propagate such religion or opinion with the intention of making such conversion.”
Those who commit offenses under this clause could face up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees (approx. US$430). A foreign national who commits such an offence faces deportation.
A study conducted by the United States’ Commission on International Religious Freedom, documented two cases of the application of blasphemy laws in the country between 2014-2018.
Pastor Keshab Raj Acharya was reportedly first arrested in Pokhara on 23 March 2020 and charged with spreading misinformation about COVID-19 for stating that “those who follow Christ would not become infected”. He was fined for these statements but remained in jail. According to IIRF (a Christian institute), his phone was searched without his consent during his arrest. The police found information and photographic evidence of him traveling around the country and distributing Christian material. He was subsequently charged multiple times with proselytizing and outraging religious feelings. On 19 April 2020, bail for his release was set at 500,000 rupees ($4,300). However, he was not released and was transferred 400 miles away to face more charges of religious conversion. On 30 June 2020, Acharya was released on a 300,000 rupees bail ($2,600)