As Nepal prepares to conduct its once-per-decade census, the country's growing Christian community, concerned that it is seen as a negligible minority, will count its own members this year - writes Sudeshna Sarkar.
Nepal Christian Society (NCS), an umbrella of Protestant organisations, is spearheading the first-time initiative.
"We don’t feel the state census gives an accurate picture of the religious minorities," said Lok Mani Dhakal, NCS General Secretary. "State surveyors mark a person Hindu if he has a traditional name. Also, the fear of persecution made Christians shy away from revealing their true faith in the past."
Nepal before 2006 was the only Hindu state in the world ruled by a royal dynasty whose members were projected as incarnations of a Hindu god. Conversions were punished with imprisonment and the slaughter of cows, regarded as holy by Hindus, was forbidden.
In 2006, Communist guerrillas, who were waging an armed revolt to overthrow the monarchy, forged an agreement with the sidelined political parties. The alliance resulted in a 19-day nationwide general strike supported by the international community.
The protests paralysed King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah’s army-backed regime and forced him to surrender power. The capitulation was followed by an election in 2008 that saw the newly elected parliament formally abolish monarchy and affirm Nepal as a secular, federal republic.
"The last census was held in 2001," said Bikash Bista, deputy Director-General of the Central Bureau of Statistics, which organises the census every 10 years. At that time, Nepal’s population was 23 million. Hindus were the majority (80.62 per cent) and Buddhism (10.7 per cent) was the second-most followed religion. Christians accounted for only 0.45 per cent
Bista conceded that the past restrictive regimes prevented people from admitting their religion freely. "Now that Nepal is a democratic secular republic, we are expecting remarkable changes in the religious profile," he told ENInews in Kathmandu. "There has been a visible spurt in the number of Christians. The number of churches is going up and the congregations are larger."
While the state census starts on June 17 and will see 34,000 enumerators led by 8,000 supervisors fan out across all 75 districts of Nepal to complete the survey in 11 days, the Christian census is at the planning stage.
"We are starting a two-month workshop from February to discuss the questionnaire, the methodology and how to raise funds," says Dhakal. "We are asking the churches to help and consulting other denominations for a collaborative survey."
Unlike the state census, where people are asked only to state their religion without further details, the Christian census plans to ascertain the Christian population and break it down according to sex and various age groups. It also intends to detail denominations, the financial and educational status of Christians and the number of churches.
Dhakal estimates Christians now total almost 1.2 million of the estimated 28 million population. "If the census proves Christians now comprise 2-4 per cent of the population, the government will have to include us in the various decision-making processes," he says. For instance, the government will have to include them in Parliament, where there are no nominated Christian members among the 601 sitting MPs.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]