A Christian pastor in Nepal could face six years in prison after he suggested on social media that prayer could bring healing from COVID-19.
Morning Star News reports that pastor Keshab Acharya, 32, was taken into custody on Monday from his home in Pokhara, Gandaki Pradesh Province, after a video appeared on social media of him rebuking the coronavirus as he preached at his church.
The pastor’s wife, Junu Acharya, told the news outlet that her husband received a phone call from a man requesting prayer for his sick wife at about 8 p.m., she said.
“The person wanted to come to our home for prayer, and my husband agreed, provided him the address and asked him to come over so we can pray for his wife,” she recalled.
As they waited, three male police officers and a female police officer arrived at their door.
“They told us that they were also Christian and needed prayers, and that they had called pastor Acharya and came for prayer,” she said.
After the officers went inside the pastor's house, they surrounded him and said they were arresting him over a video circulating on social media in which he prayed against and rebuked the novel coronavirus.
“My husband said, ‘If there was any charge against me, you could have let me know directly, and I would have come to the police station all by myself,’ because our 2-year-old son and I were panicked,” Junu Acharya said. “I immediately called two of the brothers from our church who can drive and followed the police’s vehicle. I was afraid that he would be beaten up by police or would be taken to somewhere else. I wanted to ensure that they were taking him to the police station.”
The Nepal police website states that Kaski police officers arrested pastor Acharya for misleading the public by posting false information on social media about the novel coronavirus.
Police cited a video showing pastor Acharya calling the coronavirus an evil spirit and rebuking it in the name of Christ.
According to the Himalayan Times, the pastor allegedly said in the video that COVID-19 could do nothing to followers of Jesus Christ and told them the virus “could not even touch the followers of Jesus.”
The Himalayan Times said pastor Acharya preached in a highly-populated squatters area, but the police report only cites his comments on social media, according to Morning Star News.
Pastor Mukunda Sharma, executive secretary of the Nepal Christian Society, said he had urged the District Superintendent of Police, Dan Bahadur Karki, to act fairly and not implicate pastor Acharya in any criminal charges.
“I told Mr. Kargi that the police cannot prosecute the pastor for exercising his faith, and that it is a gross violation of human rights, and he had assured me that the pastor was taken into custody only for an inquiry,” Sharma told Morning Star News.
Karki told the Himalayan Times that pastor Acharya was in police custody and that preparations were underway to take action against him. Police reportedly said the pastor could be sent to prison for six months.
C.B. Gahatraj, president of the Federation of National Christians in Nepal, said the arrest of the Nepali Christian leader is unacceptable and against Nepal’s Constitution, as nothing in the video indicates any violation of law.
“The entire world is under attack by the COVID-19, and during this time people from across all religions are praying for it to stop,” Gahatraj told Morning Star News. “By this act, religious harmony is in danger during a time when people are already in chaos.”
“It is clear that it was a sermon preached by pastor Acharya within his respective congregation, and our federation asserts that this practice of praying is not in conflict with the laws of Nepal,” Gahatraj said.
On Tuesday, Nepal began a weeklong lockdown to stem the spread of the new coronavirus after health officials reported a second case of coronavirus in the country of 30 million.
The country reported its first case in January — a Nepali man who had been studying in Wuhan, at the center of the virus outbreak in China, according to the Jakarta Post.
Nepal is ranked No. 32 on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Christians make up just 3 percent of the predominantly Hindu country’s population.
In September, Hindu extremists threatened to kill a pastor in Nepal following a social media post showing of a restricted audience-interview he gave on his journey to Christ.
“It is the first time a Christian [in Nepal] has been targeted for sharing [on social and other media] about his past religion and introduction into Christianity,” legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom’s allied attorney in Nepal, Ganesh Sreshta, told Morning Star News. “It is turning out to be a high-profile issue, with Hindu fundamentalist groups linked to prominent political leaders taking interest in this video.”