The High Court in Nepal has ordered the release of two South Korean nuns who have been in detention for more than two months on charges of “illegal conversions.”
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.
“In the end they obtained bail, thanks to everyone who prayed for them,” wrote Father Silas Bogati, vicar general of the apostolic vicariate of Nepal.
The nuns spent two months in jail after a district court in the city of Pokhara, about 200 kilometers from Kathmandu, rejected a bail application.
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.
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.
Bishop Paul Simick, apostolic vicar of Nepal, was quoted as saying that the nuns have been “dedicating themselves totally to the poor for so many years.”
“[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.
An international Christian rights group decried the detention of the nuns, saying the arrests “bring into question the future of religious freedom in Nepal.”
In a statement, William Stark, regional manager for South Asia of the group International Christian Concern, said the 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.
“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.
Vatican News said in an earlier report 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 Aid to the Church in Need’s 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.