In unprecedented protests by Nepal's small Christian community, dozens formed a month-long chain fast demanding government allocation of land to bury their dead.
"We will continue the struggle until our demand is met," said Sundar Thapa, president of the Christian Advisory Committee for a New Constitution, which led the protests. "We are not asking for bread or jobs. At least our dead should have the right to have a dignified burial."
The protests in Kathmandu, which included a parade of coffins and the threat to parade dead bodies next, came after officials began strictly enforcing a ban on the longtime practice of Christian burials in the hills near the famous Pashupatinath Temple, one of Hinduism's most sacred shrines, in December. The nation's Supreme Court lifted the ban in March while the government explored solutions, but temple authorities have prevented further burials. The court has pledged to decide between competing Christian and Hindu lawsuits over a Christian cemetery on Monday.
Kathmandu lacks cemeteries because Hindus and most Buddhists in Nepal customarily cremate the dead. Christians prefer burial, but land is expensive in the crowded capital.
K. B. Rokaya, founder and president of the National Christian Council of Nepal, said Christians have attempted to resolve this "major challenge" by buying private land for burial, yet "they face obstruction and harassment from the local people to bury their dead in these lands."
"Our people have been trying to bury the dead wherever they could as we have no cemeteries, but Hindus would throw out the bodies if they find out," said Thapa, also general secretary of the Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Nepal. The protests are a "struggle for Christian identity" and "symbolize the discrimination faced by the Christians in Nepal," he said. "It is not a question of land but recognizing a tradition—burying the dead—that is part and parcel of our Christian faith."
Christianity has yet to be recognized as a religion in the former Hindu kingdom that was declared a "secular republic" in 2007 following massive pro-democracy protests. Yet Christians have increased from a few thousand in the 1980s to between 1 and 2 million among the 28 million nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.
"It is a challenge for the government to prove itself as a secular state," said Bishop Narayan Sharma of the Believers Church, where members were recently prevented from burying a Christian on land owned by Christians after local Hindus protested. Christians hope a new constitution due by May will grant rights to religious minorities. Meanwhile, Protestant churches are planning a Christian census to prevent the government's once-a-decade census this June from undercounting recent Christian growth.
Chirendra Satyal, a spokesperson for Nepal's Catholic community, said lack of cemeteries for Christians is a major problem. Churches are unable to buy land because they are "not recognized" by the archaic laws of the former Hindu kingdom, Satyal said, so Catholics erected cubicles on the walls of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Kathmandu where they can keep the urns of their dead after cremating them.
"Our people would certainly love to have our own cemeteries where our dead can rest in peace. We support this demand," said Satyal, a convert from the Hindu royal priestly family.
Only when the government allots burial land for Christians, Thapa said, "Hindus will acknowledge our right to bury the dead and leave us in peace."
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The Nepalese government formed a panel today to review Christians' requests for the burial grounds.