Human rights, faith and minority groups are expressing concern that some Hindu activists are pressuring the Nepalese government to reimpose Hinduism as the state religion.
Sudeshna Sarkar writes for ENI from Kathmandu: The marquees near Nepal's Pashupatinath temple in the Himalayan country's capital resembled a carnival with people trooping in from morning to night.
But for some members of minority religions, including people among about 700,000 Christians who were given religious freedom in 2006, the Hindu gathering has been a cause for concern.
The group Christian Solidarity Worldwide has warned that Nepal's new constitution, which will go into effect in May 2010, may not allow people to convert from one religion to another.
Kalidas Dahal, a Hindu who claims to have supernatural powers, on 1 March began a nine-day prayer meeting, aiming to show the coalition government the public support Hinduism still enjoys in Nepal. Besides ministers and lawmakers, the deposed king, Gyanendra Shah, also attended on 8 March.
Once the only Hindu kingdom in the world, Nepal was declared a secular State by its parliament in 2006 and the monarchy was abolished two years later to punish the king for seizing power.
Now, with a new constitution due in May, Hindu groups are pressuring the government to reinstate Hinduism as the State religion.
Dahal's demand is backed by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, the only party in the country's parliament to support the monarchy and Hinduism. Though it won just four out of 601 seats during the 2008 election, the RPP-Nepal members are determined to show it is a force to be reckoned with.
On 22 February, the pro-Hindu party paralysed the Nepalese capital with a general strike and the next day it blockaded the prime minister's office and other ministries. It has warned of more protests unless its demands are met.
"We want a referendum before the new constitution is promulgated on May 28," RPP-Nepal chief Kamal Thapa told Ecumenical News International. "The people should be allowed to decide if monarchy and Hinduism should return."
Thapa, the deposed king's home affairs minister, said his party conducted a signature campaign for the referendum. Despite opposition by the former Maoist guerrillas, whose decade-old armed uprising led to the abolition of the monarchy and State religion, more than two million of Nepal's 27 million people supported the call.
In a nation where nearly 75 per cent of the people are Hindus, Thapa says Hinduism is needed to preserve Nepal's cultural identity. "If the new constitution is enforced without the referendum, people will not obey it and there will be no peace," Thapa warns.
Some of the ruling parties may also support the bid for a Hindu nation.
"The huge turnout sends out a signal," says Hridayesh Tripathi, a lawmaker from the ethnic Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party, whose ministers attended Dahal’s ritual. Senior leaders from the Nepali Congress, the biggest party in the government, have also been at the ritual gathering.
"Religion is a matter of private faith and remains above the constitution," Tripathi asserts. "As long as people want religion, the government can't oust it."
But Nepal's Christian community is not showing any signs of panicking yet.
"There will always be some opposition to secularism," says Anthony Sharma, Nepal's first Roman Catholic bishop, who was appointed by the Vatican in 2007. "We don't want to speculate on what's going to happen in future. The [previous] constitution of 1991 was a progressive one; we hope the new one will be even more so."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]