Pastor Keshav Raj Acharya and his wife Junu Acharya (pictured together) lead Abundant Harvest Church in Nepal’s Pokhara city. In November 2021 Pastor Keshav was found guilty of “proselytising” and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. All charges were dropped in June 2022, so it came as a shock when the following month the High Court confirmed the District Court’s conviction, although the High Court reduced his prison sentence to one year.
Pastor Keshav’s lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court but on 6 October 2023 it upheld the High Court’s one-year prison sentence. The pastor, who spent several months in prison while his case moved through the courts, is waiting to be called to serve his sentence.
Speaking to Morning Star News recently, Pastor Keshav said he fears police and judiciary will cite his case as a precedent to imprison other Christians for “proselytising” or “forcible conversion even without evidence”. He was the first person convicted for proselytising in Nepal under legislation that went into effect in August 2018.
“In case someone wilfully converts to Christ, the police and the court will convict the person through whom this believer has heard the message of Christ and His salvation,” he said. “Where does the police/judiciary draw the line between ‘forced conversion’ and ‘voluntary conversion’?”
Pastor Keshav said the Supreme Court refused to consider his appeal when his case came before it last month. He told Morning Star News, “On the first hearing, our request was blatantly dismissed by the Supreme Court without a glance at the documents. They insisted that the High Court’s decision would stand as final, refusing any further discussion on the matter.” He described the ruling as “unfair” and said his lawyer would appeal again to the Supreme Court.
“The witnesses said that I did not even ask them to convert, only gave them tracts; they read it and discarded it,” he said. “I have been convicted for something that I have not done. I am being targeted unnecessarily and harassed and put to jail.”
Family and church
While waiting to be called to prison, Pastor Keshav continues to minister every day to the approximately 250 members of Abundant Harvest Church, visiting their homes for prayer and Bible study. After he is summoned to prison, Junu will continue to care for the congregation and lead worship services.
“We were very shocked and deeply sad initially,” Pastor Keshav told Morning Star News, “But then we made up our mind and decided to make the best use of the time till I am arrested. Though the judgment has been pronounced, the court orders have not been released. It is festival time in Nepal, and thankfully they have not arrested me yet. I consider this as an opportunity and God’s providence.”
Pastor Keshav worries about how their sons (aged 5 and 4) will react to his long absence. “My children are very close to me,” he said. “They are used to not seeing me for few days or a week when I go for ministry trips, but one full year is a long time.”
He explained that while away on ministry trips he does video calls with his children every day, but that these calls will not be possible from jail. “I will be allowed to call my family around 10 in the morning only, and my children would be in school at that time,” he said.
Junu told Morning Star News that police could arrive suddenly to take her husband to jail. “What can I do when that day comes, except pray,” she said. “I must take care of the church as well as my children and provide for them.”
“Prevailing anti-Christian sentiments”
Hanok Tamang, chair of the National Churches Fellowship of Nepal (NCFN), said hostilities toward Christians have been rising. “Though no pastor, leader or any Christian is in prison right now for proselytising, we cannot predict the same for tomorrow, as we see prevailing anti-Christian sentiments and hostility increase gradually,” he told Morning Star News.
Pastor Tamang said several pastors, their family members and other leaders have been imprisoned for their faith over the years. He stated: “The Lord honoured their prayers and tears and the number of years they spent in prison. Because of their unwavering trust in Him, God has been honouring and blessing Nepal today with many precious souls each day being added to the Body of Christ. We highly salute each of them, the heroes of faith, who stood in front of the judges of Nepal to testify the mighty name of our Lord.”
Constitution and Criminal Code restrict freedom of religion or belief
Nepal’s 2016 Constitution states that everyone has the right to practice their religion but Article 26 (3) restricts freedom of religion or belief by forbidding anyone to convert a person of one religion to another. It states: “No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardise other’s religion and such act shall be punishable by law.”
Legislation enacted in 2018 criminalises any attempt to convert others, with those convicted of evangelising or forcible conversion facing fines and imprisonment of up to five years.
Advocacy groups in Nepal say they have detected increased enforcement and other anti-Christian efforts since 2018 as officials sought to placate Hindus angered that the new constitution did not give Hinduism more prominence.
Nepal’s population is approximately 68% Hindu and converts to Christianity face pressure from family, community and local authorities.
(Morning Star News, Church in Chains Global Guide)
Photo: Morning Star News