Finding God on the 'Roof of the World'

How Christian missionary activity in Nepal is rapidly changing the landscape of a traditionally Hindu country.

“It’s because of nightmares”, said the pastor; that’s why kids don’t go to school.” Whilst waiting at an airport departure gate for a flight to Kathmandu, I got into a curious conversation with a Canadian businessman-turned-missionary who talked eagerly of his “mission” in Nepal.

After explaining that I was going there to research the public education system, he was quick to voice his opinion. Notably, he attributed Hindu and Buddhist belief as a causal factor to low educational attainment and high dropout rates in schools.

Specifically, supposed nightmares of snakes (the Hindu god Shiva is often depicted in snake form) and of dead bodies (referring to the common practice of public cremation) led to sleep deprivation which ultimately contributed to low attention-spans in schools. Dropouts among girls were also attributed to “snakes in their bellies”, causing irregular or painful periods.

When I asked why Christian children don’t suffer nightmares of hell, he just laughed and remarked on the transformative power of prayer. He then added that he had personally performed exorcisms on a number of Nepali children, particularly in rural areas in which rates of “demonization” are higher.

Before the conversation could go further, we boarded our flights and he disappeared behind the curtains of the business class section.

While this is clearly a fringe perspective of the Christian faith, it is reflective of a particular brand of Christianity that is making a headway in Nepal. Converts and missionaries alike proudly claim that “…the power of God is being demonstrated through healings [and] exorcisms”.

Such activities are met with a suspicion that only increases the zeal of missionaries, who claim the ‘persecution’ of Nepal’s Christians as akin to that of the early Christian community in the Roman Empire.

In a country that now tolerates different religious practices but has a dim view of active proselytising, all but the most evangelical missionaries have been dissuaded from active conversion. As a result, fringe beliefs and practices such as exorcism and an extreme aversion to the “pagan” idols of Hinduism are particularly pronounced.

For decades, Nepal was known as the world’s only Hindu state. Following the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic in 2006, Nepal now has one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations.

Estimates of the number of converts vary widely. While the official government statistic maintains that 1.5 percent of the population are Christian, other estimates put this number closer to 10 percent and suggest that Hindu activists within the government have purposefully manipulated census figures to downplay the number of Christians in Nepal.

In a country where Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim populations have coexisted peacefully for centuries, the rapid growth of Christianity is causing tensions.

At the extreme end, Hindu nationalists perceive secularism as “…a Western conspiracy to transform Nepal into a Christian country”.

There is also the popular perception that conversion has “…more to do with health, discrimination and poverty than pure belief”. Indeed, well-funded Christian missionaries have a tendency to operate in areas of need that the (predominantly Hindu) government neglect. An estimated 60 percent of converts come from the so-called “untouchable” Dalit caste, which make up only 13 percent of the total population.

The egalitarian message of Christianity resonates among many Dalit communities, who continue to face caste-based discrimination such as being barred from Hindu temples and from interacting with upper castes.

This has caused alarm among Nepal’s Hindu elite, culminating in a provision in the 2015 Constitution that protects the country’s “original” religions of Buddhism and Hinduism by banning proselytising from “non-original” religions. Opinion polls have also consistently shown that the majority of Nepalis are unhappy with the country’s secular status, with roughly half advocating for a return to the status of a Hindu state.

Indeed, debate over the secular nature of Nepal’s Constitution erupted in 2015, in which police had to use water cannons and tear gas to dispel angry Hindu protesters. Christian churches are still not allowed to register as religious institutions but as NGOs, leading to a situation in which many evangelical groups operate under the guise of education charities.

An example of this is a group called Mountain Child, that in 2014 signed a five-year agreement to open schools in rural Nepal. From the start, there were rumours that Mountain Child was a cover for evangelical Christian missionaries engaging in religious conversion and “church-planting” in the mountains.

Their Footstool Project organises short-term mission treks for Christians from the US, focusing on “unreached peoples”, usually ethnic Tibetan Buddhists in the Himalayan Valleys, who are “crying out for help”. A blogger from one of these projects described how people in these regions are “raised the Buddhist way - no affection, no emotion, no love, just empty”, reflecting the opinion of non-Christian Nepalis as souls that need “saving”.

While Nepal’s Hindus and Buddhists have historically incorporated elements of other religions into their beliefs, evangelical groups require that their converts renounce and reject all expression of non-Christian traditions which are often viewed as the handiwork of Satan.

Another missionary was quoted as saying: “If I have a choice between possibly offending you or saying ‘OK, whatever you believe is fine’, but I believe in my heart if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to hell; well then, I’m going to take the risk of offending you”.

The rapid growth of Christianity in Nepal is testing its new secular identity, and is fermenting an unprecedented rise in religious tension in a country formerly characterised by religious harmony. It exposes the endurance of caste-based exclusion and marginalisation that the state is quick to deny.

Conversely, it is the state’s reluctance to fully accept freedom of religion that discourages all but the most radical of evangelical Christian groups from operating in Nepal, whose actions so far appear to be feeding a negative cycle and perception of Christianity as a whole.

While in Nepal, I tried to contact the same preacher from my flight. He declined, saying he was too busy touring schools across the country and meeting with Nepalese politicians. It looks like the exorcisms will continue for some time.

Samuel John recently graduated with an MSc in international development studies. Formerly a research intern with Kinder, he is now working as an English teacher in Japan; and continues to write the occasional article for Kinder World

More about: Nepal / God / Charity / Christianity / Hindu / Esorcism

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    A new expansion has added environmental challenges to Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest in a popular series of strategy video games that has been running since the 1990s. The expansion – called Gathering Storm – adds new features to the game, most notably anthropogenic climate change and natural disasters.

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    The game even progresses into a “future era”, where players are offered options like carbon capture and storage technologies or “seasteads” to house segments of the population. From early on, this new expansion compels players to think about some of the potential long-term consequences of actions that may offer short-term benefits. One example would be chopping down forests to accelerate production or convert land for other uses which, in the long run, renders a city more vulnerable to flooding and reduces the carbon sink capacity of your civilisation.

    When asked about whether Gathering Storm was somewhat of a political statement, the lead developer, Dennis Shirk, remained largely agnostic: “No, I don’t think that’s about making a political statement. We just like to have our gameplay reflect current science.” It is certainly true that the game does not coerce players into taking any particular pathway, yet it does include a “World Congress” in which climate or deforestation treaties and humanitarian aid can be ratified. We would also argue that the very inclusion of anthropogenic climate change and an associated system of incentives and punishments is inherently a political act. Moreover, in the social studies of science, what one considers to be “current science” has political ramifications.

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    We are not suggesting that the developers are necessarily liable or even responsible for promoting these views. Rather we wish to illustrate how different depictions of the future can restrict or encourage certain courses of action. The developers could have chosen to make the effects of climate change and access to mitigating technologies more random (although we do not know how difficult that would be to implement in practice nor its effects on gameplay).

    Frostpunk, and surviving the ‘volcanic winter’

    In contrast to this incidentally optimistic outlook, there is an interesting Polish video game by the name of Frostpunk. Frostpunk is set in a dystopian alternate reality in which a volcanic event has triggered a colossal global ice age. The game’s primary scenario consists of surviving the winter – which gets incrementally colder as time progresses – in “New London”: a settlement of survivors clustered around a large coal-powered generator. The player must choose between a number of difficult policies and options to ensure the survival of the population. These include 24 hour shifts, child labour, corpse disposal strategies and, more drastically, whether to welcome refugees or refuse them entry.

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    In the academic journal Environmental Communication, we argue that science and the humanities (including the arts) need to work together in the case of complex issues such as climate change, so as to better communicate scientific thinking and its political ramifications. Video games – as interactive and playful products – offer truly exceptional opportunities to do just that. We welcome these initiatives with open arms, so long as they remain responsible and stimulate critical thinking.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Noam Obermeister, PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge and Elliot Honeybun-Arnolda, PhD Candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. Read the original article here.

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    Evidence of the devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change are stacking up, and it is becoming horrifyingly real. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis has arrived. Yet another “shocking new study” led The Guardian and various other news media this week. One-third of Himalayan ice cap, they report, is doomed.

    Meanwhile in Australia, record summer temperatures have wrought unprecedented devastation of biblical proportions – mass deaths of horses, bats and fish are reported across the country, while the island state of Tasmania burns. In some places this version of summer is a terrifying new normal.

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    How do you feel?

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    So where do we go from here? How might this knowledge help us – you and me? We must make a commitment, but not of the kind you might imagine. The shocking reality of the climate crisis is making its way into the webs of everyday life, emotions, thought processes, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears. Perhaps we should commit to letting it, as an alternative to doubling down on our denial.

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    Such a process is still miles apart from many “sustainability” agendas. Halting the climate crisis is still predominately framed as a matter for individual choice and change – use less plastic, cycle to work, fly less. But the behavioural response required is way more complicated than that.

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    See what obligations emerge. There are no guarantees. But what else do we do?

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Olu Jenzen, Principal Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Brighton. Read the original article here.

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    The newest addition to a generous list of 520 (!) candidates for the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, was senator Cory Booker. On February 1st, Booker announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

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    Cory Booker is not the only vegan US politician who’s running for future elections. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, a vegan advocate who has several initiatives such as promoting vegan lunches in local school districts, will be running for mayor of New York City during the 2021 elections. A fellow New Yorker and vegan, Council Member Helen Rosenthal will also be running in the 2021 elections but for New York City comptroller.

    Many people have declared 2019 the year of the vegan and the plant-based diet the future of nutrition. A new way of eating with the premise of a flourishing planet and better lives for its inhabitants is making its way through our society from music to technology, and now outspoken vegan politicians with a real shot at the office in the country that is the world’s largest meat consumer.

    All signs point to a plant-based future.

    Speaking of a plant-based future, our first Kinder Conversation on the Future of Meat is fast approaching. We'll talk about the 'new meat' and how as a society we can (and should) reduce our dependency on animal farming. Get your tickets before we sell out:

    Header image is by Sean Davis via Flickr.

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