Finding God on the 'Roof of the World'

How Christian missionary activity in Nepal is rapidly changing the landscape of a traditionally Hindu country.

“It’s because of nightmares”, said the pastor; that’s why kids don’t go to school.” Whilst waiting at an airport departure gate for a flight to Kathmandu, I got into a curious conversation with a Canadian businessman-turned-missionary who talked eagerly of his “mission” in Nepal.

After explaining that I was going there to research the public education system, he was quick to voice his opinion. Notably, he attributed Hindu and Buddhist belief as a causal factor to low educational attainment and high dropout rates in schools.

Specifically, supposed nightmares of snakes (the Hindu god Shiva is often depicted in snake form) and of dead bodies (referring to the common practice of public cremation) led to sleep deprivation which ultimately contributed to low attention-spans in schools. Dropouts among girls were also attributed to “snakes in their bellies”, causing irregular or painful periods.

When I asked why Christian children don’t suffer nightmares of hell, he just laughed and remarked on the transformative power of prayer. He then added that he had personally performed exorcisms on a number of Nepali children, particularly in rural areas in which rates of “demonization” are higher.

Before the conversation could go further, we boarded our flights and he disappeared behind the curtains of the business class section.

While this is clearly a fringe perspective of the Christian faith, it is reflective of a particular brand of Christianity that is making a headway in Nepal. Converts and missionaries alike proudly claim that “…the power of God is being demonstrated through healings [and] exorcisms”.

Such activities are met with a suspicion that only increases the zeal of missionaries, who claim the ‘persecution’ of Nepal’s Christians as akin to that of the early Christian community in the Roman Empire.

In a country that now tolerates different religious practices but has a dim view of active proselytising, all but the most evangelical missionaries have been dissuaded from active conversion. As a result, fringe beliefs and practices such as exorcism and an extreme aversion to the “pagan” idols of Hinduism are particularly pronounced.

For decades, Nepal was known as the world’s only Hindu state. Following the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic in 2006, Nepal now has one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations.

Estimates of the number of converts vary widely. While the official government statistic maintains that 1.5 percent of the population are Christian, other estimates put this number closer to 10 percent and suggest that Hindu activists within the government have purposefully manipulated census figures to downplay the number of Christians in Nepal.

In a country where Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim populations have coexisted peacefully for centuries, the rapid growth of Christianity is causing tensions.

At the extreme end, Hindu nationalists perceive secularism as “…a Western conspiracy to transform Nepal into a Christian country”.

There is also the popular perception that conversion has “…more to do with health, discrimination and poverty than pure belief”. Indeed, well-funded Christian missionaries have a tendency to operate in areas of need that the (predominantly Hindu) government neglect. An estimated 60 percent of converts come from the so-called “untouchable” Dalit caste, which make up only 13 percent of the total population.

The egalitarian message of Christianity resonates among many Dalit communities, who continue to face caste-based discrimination such as being barred from Hindu temples and from interacting with upper castes.

This has caused alarm among Nepal’s Hindu elite, culminating in a provision in the 2015 Constitution that protects the country’s “original” religions of Buddhism and Hinduism by banning proselytising from “non-original” religions. Opinion polls have also consistently shown that the majority of Nepalis are unhappy with the country’s secular status, with roughly half advocating for a return to the status of a Hindu state.

Indeed, debate over the secular nature of Nepal’s Constitution erupted in 2015, in which police had to use water cannons and tear gas to dispel angry Hindu protesters. Christian churches are still not allowed to register as religious institutions but as NGOs, leading to a situation in which many evangelical groups operate under the guise of education charities.

An example of this is a group called Mountain Child, that in 2014 signed a five-year agreement to open schools in rural Nepal. From the start, there were rumours that Mountain Child was a cover for evangelical Christian missionaries engaging in religious conversion and “church-planting” in the mountains.

Their Footstool Project organises short-term mission treks for Christians from the US, focusing on “unreached peoples”, usually ethnic Tibetan Buddhists in the Himalayan Valleys, who are “crying out for help”. A blogger from one of these projects described how people in these regions are “raised the Buddhist way - no affection, no emotion, no love, just empty”, reflecting the opinion of non-Christian Nepalis as souls that need “saving”.

While Nepal’s Hindus and Buddhists have historically incorporated elements of other religions into their beliefs, evangelical groups require that their converts renounce and reject all expression of non-Christian traditions which are often viewed as the handiwork of Satan.

Another missionary was quoted as saying: “If I have a choice between possibly offending you or saying ‘OK, whatever you believe is fine’, but I believe in my heart if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to hell; well then, I’m going to take the risk of offending you”.

The rapid growth of Christianity in Nepal is testing its new secular identity, and is fermenting an unprecedented rise in religious tension in a country formerly characterised by religious harmony. It exposes the endurance of caste-based exclusion and marginalisation that the state is quick to deny.

Conversely, it is the state’s reluctance to fully accept freedom of religion that discourages all but the most radical of evangelical Christian groups from operating in Nepal, whose actions so far appear to be feeding a negative cycle and perception of Christianity as a whole.

While in Nepal, I tried to contact the same preacher from my flight. He declined, saying he was too busy touring schools across the country and meeting with Nepalese politicians. It looks like the exorcisms will continue for some time.

Samuel John recently graduated with an MSc in international development studies. Formerly a research intern with Kinder, he is now working as an English teacher in Japan; and continues to write the occasional article for Kinder World

More about: Nepal / God / Charity / Christianity / Hindu / Esorcism

More Stories

  • 'A Message From The Future' is a new short science fiction movie narrated by AOC


    The Intercept has just released "A Message From the Future," a short science fiction movie narrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and drawn by Molly Crabapple, describing the coming "Green New Deal Decade," when Americans pulled together and found prosperity, stability, solidarity and full employment through a massive, nationwide effort to refit the country to be resilient to climate shocks and stem the tide of global climate change.

    It's an astonishingly moving and beautiful piece, and deploys a tactic that has been surprisingly effective at mobilising large groups of people: creating a retrospective describing the successful project to inspire people to make it a success. Famously, this is the tactic that Jeff Bezos insists on at Amazon for the launch of new internal projects: ambitious internal entrepreneurs must submit a memo describing the project as a fait accompli, and if the description is compelling and exciting enough, they get the resources to make it happen.

    But it's not just Amazon: as anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, her seminal 2014 study of Anonymous, this is how Anon ops get started: an individual Anon makes a video announcing victory in some op that hasn't taken place yet, and if enough other anons are inspired by it to make it happen, then it happens.

    In her article accompanying the video, Naomi Klein describes the audacity of other projects on this scale, like FDR's New Deal, and how much skepticism they were met with at their outset -- and how, as the vision caught on, it spread like wildfire through the population, so that something that was once impossible became inevitable.

    "One reason that elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration administrator Harry Hopkins famously put it, 'Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.'

    Through programs including the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African-American and Indigenous artists.

    The result was a renaissance of creativity and a staggering body of work that transformed the visual landscape of the country. The Federal Art Project alone produced nearly 475,000 works of art, including over 2,000 posters, 2,500 murals, and 100,000 canvasses for public spaces. Its stable of artists included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authors who participated in the Federal Writers Program included Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck." (A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

    This article was originally published on BoingBoing under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Cory Doctorow. You can read the original article here.

    This story features:
    Read more
  • Is Instagram's upcoming donation sticker just a way to lure credit card numbers?


    Last February, Facebook announced that it will release a donation sticker feature on Instagram, giving its users the possibility to support charitable organizations through Instagram Stories.

    The move is part of Facebook conglomerate’s increasing interest in philanthropy. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably already come across a fundraiser from a friend, asking you to donate to a charitable cause. Or maybe, you set one up yourself for your birthday. This Charitable Giving feature on Facebook raised over $ 1 billion as of November 2018.

    It seems that Zuckerberg’s plan is to transform his social media into the go-to virtual place for charitable donations. The endeavor appears nothing but noble and laudable.

    On Facebook, donors enjoy a smooth experience that allows them to donate to their favorite organizations in a matter of seconds and to share their philanthropic efforts with friends and followers. Moreover, Facebook does all of this for free, having abolished its transaction fee in November 2017. There are no reasons to suspect that Instagram’s upcoming donation sticker will be anything but another sleek and convenient feature of the Facebook family.

    However, over the years, we have learned that when Facebook says “it’s free”, it might mean you’re paying in currencies different than a direct monetary transaction.

    Again, there are no reasons to suspect that it will be any different when it comes to Instagram’s new donation sticker.

    To explain my point, let’s look at the bigger picture and consider the general direction Instagram is going towards. Last March, the social network rolled out a new feature called “Checkout”, which enables users to buy directly from select brands on the platform.

    Users can shop for items on their favorite brands’ Instagram profiles and head to an in-app payment screen to order them, paying with the credit card information they have stored on the platform.

    The aim is evidently to transform Instagram into an e-commerce app, adding another revenue stream next to the ad dollars.

    Soon after Facebook announced the “Checkout on Instagram” feature, Deutsche Bank wrote a note to investors highlighting how the move could enable an “incremental $10 billion of revenue in 2021”.

    Wondering if the average user would be willing to hand payment data to Instagram, the Deutsche bank memo fconcluded that many people already use Facebook for charitable donations through the app’s giving tools, and might be willing to extend that to shopping.

    From this perspective, the upcoming Instagram donation sticker would certainly facilitate the acquisition of users’ credit card information. After all, you’re much more inclined to give up your payment data if a trusted friend asks you to support a human rights organization rather than if you have to buy the umpteenth pair of sneakers from a large, anonymous corporation. But, of course, once your credit card number is stored in the app that alluring pair of sneakers becomes literally just a click away...

    In a way, it seems that Facebook will use philanthropy as a lubricant oil to ease its transition from a social media platform to an e-commerce one.

    I’m not saying that this is the only reason Instagram is adding a donation sticker to its deck (they also just like to monopolize your digital life) or that the donations made through it will be tainted. This is just an invitation to reflect on the way social media are reshaping the world of philanthropy and whether we like it or not. Full disclosure: one of the reasons I've been thinking about this is that also here at Kinder we're trying to build some digital tools to make donations to charities more convenient and rewarding.

    Obviously, we don't have Facebook's firepower so I hope that Facebook's donation tools will continue raising generous amounts of money. It's just that they're also part of the company's bigger expansion plans. Since philanthropy really is a noble undertaking, it would just be better if the donation tools were clearly separated from Facebook’s more commercial functionalities.

    But Instagram’s donation sticker has yet to be implemented on the platform, so there’s still plenty of time to fully remedy the situation.

    Credit header image: Wikipedia

    This story features:
    Read more
  • For the first time, a woman will lead a public university in Mozambique


    In March 2019, Mozambican professor Emília Nhalevilo took office as dean of the recently-created Púnguè University, becoming thus the first women to ever lead a public university in the African country.

    She was nominated by President Filipe Nyusi, but the decision about the recently-created universities was announced by the Council of Ministers on January 29. Nhalevilo will remain in office, in principle, for a period of four years.

    Born in Nampula, the most populous province in Mozambique, Nhalevilo holds a doctorate and master's degree in education from the University of Perth, Australia, and a bachelor's degree in science education from Pedagogical University (UP).

    From 2005 to 2007, she worked as Professor at Curtin University of Technology, in Australia. In 2008, Nhalevilo became the head of the chemistry department at UP, and then took office as deputy director of the Center for Mozambican Studies and Ethnoscience, a research center at the same institution.

    In 2017, she was a fellow with the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development of New York University, in the United States.

    Nhalevilo was the vice-dean for research and extension in the UP since 2018.

    As dean of a public university, her current position is equivalent to that of a minister in Mozambique.

    Eliana Nzualo, an activist and feminist blogger, says Nhalevilo's appointment is a historic moment:

    Nhalevilo is the first woman to lead a Public University in Mozambique. Congratulations to the Magnificent Rector! For more women in the Universities, For more women in the lead!

    In Mozambique, women still face challenges in accessing leadership and management positions. But there have been improvements: in the current parliament, for example, both the president of the assembly and the heads of the two largest political caucus are women.

    But gender inequality still prevails in the southern African country.

    The UNDP's 2016 Africa Human Development Report, whose title is “Accelerating Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in Africa,” revealed that Mozambican women and girls continue to suffer from inequalities, such as poor access to justice, poor access to school and health care, and repeated acts of violence.

    In 2018, there were 25,356 cases of domestic violence in Mozambique, of which 12,500 were against women and 9,000 against children.

    Mozambique ranks 10th in the world for child marriages, according to a UNICEF report from 2015. The organization defines “child marriage” as a marital union in which at least one person is under the age of 18.

    In mid-2018, pilot Admira António became the first woman to ever captain a flight in Mozambique, while in December 2018, an all-female flight crew took to the skies for the first time.

    In 2014, when the Police of the Republic of Mozambique turned 39, Arsenia Massingue was presented as the first woman general in the corporation.

    This article is republished from Global Voices. It's written by Alexandre Nhampossa and translated by Dércio Tsandzana. You can read the original article here.

    This story features:
    Read more