Four Christians have been arrested in Nepal, including a United States citizen, months after a controversial law criminalizing religious conversion went into effect in the Asian nation.
On Tuesday morning, police in the city of Ghorahi arrested a Christian society leader, an Indian national, a citizen of Colorado and a Nepali interpreter at their hotel for their alleged involvement in religious conversion by "allurement," according to the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The four of them had attended a one-day pastors’ conference that took place Monday in a local church.
The human rights advocacy group reports that authorities searched hotel rooms and took bibles, cash, laptops and also cash belonging to the Christians.
According to contacts who spoke with the Christian aid agency Barnabus Fund, police also confiscated a USB device, a vehicle and a nebulizer that aids breathing.
The arrested include Nepal Christian Society General Secretary Dilli Ram Paudel, Indian national Gaurav Sreevastab and Nepali interpreter Kusang Tamang. Although CSW did not name the U.S. citizen, Morning Star News identified the American as Oleana Cinquanta, a resident of Colorado.
Cinquanta told the persecution news outlet that she was held for more than 10 hours without medication and that she was deported to the U.S.
“The allegations are completely false,” Cinquanta was quoted as writing in a text message. “We were not distributing any Bibles or dollars.”
“I was visiting a church program in Dang [district] with my travel agent and some friends,” Cinquanta added. “No one was engaging in conversion.”
A source told the Barnabus Fund that the conference was a training course for pastors.
In Nepal, a predominantly Hindu country to the north of India where Christians are a tiny minority, a law was implemented last August banning religious conversions and “the hurting of religious feelings.”
At the time, Christian leaders feared the law would be used to persecute Christians for practicing their religion as similar laws have been abused in countries like neighboring India.
According to CSW, those arrested on Tuesday had not yet been charged with a crime but were still being detained.
Christian leader Pratik Bista told Morning Star News that he and a delegation of other Christian leaders visited the Dang district police headquarters on Tuesday. He said they were told by the superintendent that the detained would be released on Wednesday. The superintendent reportedly reasoned that the Christians were arrested for “general inquiry.”
SW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas called on the Nepali authorities to drop all charges against the Christians and release them immediately.
“We urge Nepal to respect the right of all religious minorities to practice their faith or belief through worship, observation, teaching and practice,” Thomas said in a statement. “Section 158 of the penal code emboldens both state and non-state actors to harass and prosecute innocent people who are simply exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. ”
According to Bista, police officers took Bibles as “evidence” to claim they were carrying out conversions. He added that authorities also took U.S. dollars from Cinquanta’s to suggest she was using “allurement to convert.”
“How is it a crime for a Christian to carry his Bible, and how is it a crime for an American to carry dollars when visiting a foreign country?” Bista asked. “If a Hindu carrying his holy scriptures is not a crime, then how does it apply on Christians? How could they come to the hotel and detain the Christians without a First Information Report?”
Nepal ranks as the 32nd worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List. While Christian persecution in Nepal comes largely from Hindu radicals, Open Doors notes that a new secular constitution adopted in 2015 has limited religious freedom.
Nepal has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council since 2018 and is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
But CSW argues that Nepal has caused many Christians to live in fear of practicing their faith by issuing laws that limit freedom of religion.
Throughout the years, U.S. officials have voiced concern to senior government and political leaders in Nepal over the country’s ban on religious conversion, provisions in the new constitution and restrictions to religious freedom.
“They continued to highlight the ways in which anticonversion laws could be used to arbitrarily restrict the right to the freedoms of religion and expression,” the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom explains. “Embassy officers and visiting senior U.S. government officials also raised concerns with government officials about the government’s restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists conducting peaceful religious activities.”
In 2016, seven Christians were arrested in the Dolakha district for handing out Bibles.