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Christian rights group, Catholic bishop decry detention of South Korean nuns in Nepal

"The arrests … bring into question the future of religious freedom in Nepal," said William Stark the group International Christian Concern

An international Christian rights group decried on Thursday, October 28, the continued detention of two South Korean nuns in Nepal for charges of “Illegal conversions.”

“The arrests … bring into question the future of religious freedom in Nepal,” said William Stark, regional manager for South Asia of the group International Christian Concern.

Bishop Paul Simick, apostolic vicar of Nepal, reported that the Nepalese Catholic community was shocked at the news that the nuns were denied bail.

“The two have been dedicating themselves totally to the poor for so many years,” Bishop Simick said in a statement to Aid to the Church in Need.

In a statement, Stark said the Catholic nuns were arrested “simply because of their religious identity and their heart for the poor in Nepal.”

He noted that since the country’s new constitution was adopted in 2015, Nepalese Christians have been concerned that the law would be used to target the community.

“Today, Nepalese Christians again have seen their fears realized,” said Stark.

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“Nepal’s sweeping anti-conversion law must be repealed if religious freedom is truly a right to be enjoyed by the country’s citizens,” he added.

The two South Korean missionaries were arrested in Nepal in September on charges of converting Hindus by coercion and allurement.

Sister Gemma Lucia Kim and Sister Martha Park Byongsuk of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres congregation were arrested on September 14 following an anonymous complaint.

They are presently detained in a prison in Kathmandu after they were denied bail, said a report posted on the website of the International Christian Concern.

A Vatican News report said the nuns were running “Happy Home,” a center that provides accommodation, food, education, medical services and skills training to about 120 slum children in Pokhara, about 200 kilometers from Kathmandu.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nuns distributed food rations to the most affected people, but some residents said they were trying to convert people to become Catholics.

“[The arrest of the nuns] reveals not only bigotry on the part of those who accused the sisters, but also ignorance of the needs of the poor,” said Bishop Simick.

He said the allegations “are utterly baseless and unjust.”

“We, as Catholics, do not indulge in forceful conversion and the Korean sisters are known for doing exclusively social work,” he said.

He said that although the nuns are “very calm and serene,” he is worried about their health as they are both elderly.

“The Catholic community views this incident as an attack on minority communities, and an attempt to criminalize particularly Christian missionary activities such as social services, providing education, and health care, which could be construed as an allurement for conversion,” said Bishop Simick.

Vatican News said that in recent years Christian Churches, in general, have been experiencing growing hostility and intolerance in the Himalayan Hindu-majority nation, where Christians account for 1.4 percent of the population.

According to the ACN Religious Freedom Report 2021, legal and social pressures on the Christian minority have further increased since the adoption of the new Constitution in 2015 and of the new Penal Code outlawing proselytism.

Proselytization is considered a criminal offense in Nepal. The process of criminalizing religious conversion began in 2015 when Nepal adopted a new constitution.

Article 26 (3) of the new constitution states that “No person shall behave, act or make others act to disturb public law and order situation or convert a person of one religion to another or disturb the religion of other people…such an act shall be punished by law.”

In August 2018, the Nepalese government enacted the controversial portion of the new constitution when it was added to the country’s criminal codes.

Under these new laws, an individual found guilty of even encouraging religious conversions can be fined up to 50,000 Rupees and placed in prison for up to five years.

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