The cost of being a Christian in Nepal can be high. Preaching the gospel and baptizing new believers are against the law in this land-locked country that borders India to the north. The church also faces financial hardships, with high inflation and a Nepalese yearly per capita income of $200.
Nevertheless, the number of believers has grown, from about 25,000 in 1982 to 75,000 today, according to missiologists’ estimates. Nepalese pastor Nicanor Tamang started a church there in 1978 with a handful of members. It had grown to 600 by the time he left the country earlier this year.
Tamang was jailed on two occasions for his Christian activities, confined to a windowless cell—8 by 20 feet—with up to 13 other prisoners. He was released on the condition that he leave the country permanently.
Tamang, along with his wife and their three children, now live in India. CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed him while he was touring the U.S. on behalf of International Needs, a Scranton, Pennsylvania-based mission organization dedicated to supporting Christian missionaries in their native countries.
How did you become a Christian?
I was born into a Buddhist family. I found Christ at age 16 as a result of the witness of an associate where I was employed. At the time I was living in Sikkim, where being a Christian was not illegal. [Sikkim later became part of India.] I returned to Nepal in 1972 at the age of 21 to help expand the work of Youth for Christ.
Why does the government of Nepal oppose Christianity?
Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world. It is the duty of the state to preserve and propagate the Hindu religion. Anyone who leaves Hinduism is viewed as a traitor.
The government also fears that the growth of Christianity might cause social problems, rioting with other religious communities. These fears are unfounded. There are millions of Christians in India, and rarely are there reports of conflict with other religious groups.
How did the legal limitations affectthe ministry you were engaged in?
Let me first say that for me and my family, to leave the country and people we love was a very heart-rending experience. The children were shattered when they heard they had to move. Christians in Nepal are loyal to the government, and advocate obedience to the laws of the country.
But if a law is against what Christ commands us, we have to disobey. Like John and Peter in the Book of Acts, we cannot but speak the things we have heard and seen. And so we did many things in direct violation of the law, such as preaching to Hindus, teaching them about Christ. But we never sought Hindus specifically. We asked young Christians to bring all their friends to our youth rallies, whether Hindu or not.
How did you avoid legal problems for as long as you did?
The police do not go around hunting for Christians, but they do respond to reports of Christian activity. We did not draw much attention until we formed a church and began to meet on a regular basis in the same place. We were very careful about who we selected for baptism, because of the possibility they could be spies. As the church grew, the risk was greater.
Proselytizing is illegal. Defined by the law, this means changing somebody’s religion. As Christians, we don’t change anyone’s religion. Conversion is between man and God. So if a man tells the police he became a Christian because he wanted to, he should not be prosecuted. The authorities communicated to me that it did not matter if people came on their own. They said if the church would not be there, nobody could come.
Are you optimistic that the government will change its anti-Christian policies?
We are praying and hoping for two things: either that the government will give us freedom to believe or that in persecution we will become stronger and many others will become Christians. Fear is a very present reality for the church in my country. Today there are more than 140 Christians undergoing trials in different courts.
Even so, cultural traditions are a greater barrier to the growth of the church than the law. There is a deep-seated cultural belief against conversion, even conversion to Hinduism. I believe thousands would like to become Christians, but to do so is to risk being alienated from their families.
In Nepal, as in other parts of the world, the church has flourished in persecution. Is persecution good for the church?
Nobody who is being persecuted wants persecution. It is painful. It does help the church grow, but we don’t need it for church growth. There is mixed feeling in Nepal about what would happen if freedom of religion is given. Some say people who are not true Christians will dilute the church. I feel that many, many more would respond sincerely to the gospel.
Have you formed any impressions about Christianity in America?
It seems there is a spiritual slothfulness here. The meaning of the word “Christian” has become diluted. It has to be rediscovered and reclothed with greater emphasis on a commitment that runs deeper than a few surface moral changes and religious exercises. Some people behave as if it’s the Lord’s privilege that they are Christians. They have forgotten that to be a Christian is to give everything, even life itself, for the privilege.
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