Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Nepal’s religious minorities battle for burial grounds

In a quiet corner in Rajahar, a small town in south-central Nepal, a two-decade old mosque serves not only as a place for prayer but also as one of few spaces unencumbered for the tiny, close-knit Muslim community.

On the adjoining lot, a church with a large compound and a classroom stands testament to the fact that the two religious minority groups in the Hindu majority country enjoy co-existence and interfaith harmony.

But life—or rather, death, to be specific—is harsh for them, beyond the confines of the prayer halls.

The 250-member Muslim community of Rajahar, in the district of Nawalparasi, braces for hostility whenever one among them dies.

“When someone in our community dies, we can’t bury him or her here because we don’t have a graveyard. We have to take the body to a forest in Chitwan [some 15 miles away] for burial. Even there we are faced with hostile locals, who harass us saying we were encroaching upon their land,” Nazamuddin Miya, 37, told Anadolu Agency.

A year ago, a 70-year old Muslim woman died in Rajahar. That afternoon, Miya and 30 other Muslims hired a bus that served as a hearse and drove to a forest in Ram Nagar in the neighboring Chitwan district.

Roughly 80 percent of Nepal’s 26.6 million people call themselves Hindus. Buddhists, the country’s second largest religious group, make up 9 percent of the population.

Nepal became a secular country after the end of Hindu monarchy in 2008, raising hopes of equal rights and representation for a melange of minority groups including Muslims, who make up roughly 4.4 percent, over a million of the population.

After the end of the decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006, Nepal’s leaders pledged to deliver a democratic, inclusive constitution that addressed the grievances of marginalized communities, including Muslims and Christians.

Over the years, Nepali Muslims took part in protests demanding representation in the state structure, joining dozens of ethnic and regional groups agitating in the country’s eastern hills and Tarai plains.

But Muslim leaders say the state has continued to be discriminatory, denying them even basic rights to burial sites.

“A state doesn’t have a religion, but its citizens can follow any religion. Every religious community should be able to follow its rituals and practices. But the state has treated us like third-class citizens,” Roshan Kharel, a local Muslim leader, told Anadolu Agency.

“If the state allows us to be born as Muslim, it must also allow us to die as Muslim. And that’s when the issue of burial grounds becomes really significant for us. We have been struggling for it for several years but to no avail,” said Kharel, a former Hindu who converted to Islam during a stint as a migrant worker in Qatar.

The Muslims of Rajahar are not the only community that feels threatened and discriminated.

In Hetauda, a town of Makwanpur district, about 60 miles east of Rajahar, Christians face a similar ordeal.

“We don’t have any designated space for burial. We have buried our dead on a plot that belongs to a Hindu temple but we often face resistance from locals and temple authorities,” said Prashant Dev, a local Christian leader and publisher of a monthly Christian newspaper.

He said the Christian members of Makwanpur district, home to 22,000 Christians, have often fought for the designation of a burial ground.

“We have organized protests demanding a burial ground; I have led several delegations to the local administrator and forest office, but nothing has come out of it,” Dev told Anadolu Agency.

With the local authorities turning a deaf ear, he said, his community members were forced to buy land for a graveyard or donate to some of the 300 churches in the district to secure the burial sites.

When Nepal was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April, nearly 10 percent of fatalities were Christians, who were in the middle of a weekly congregation.

Christians in Nepal congregate on Saturday – the day of the quake – taking advantage of the country's single-day weekend, said C. B. Gahatraj, a pastor and general secretary of the National Federation of Christians, a 5,700-member organization.

“Unfortunately, the districts that were hardest hit—Gorkha, Dhading, Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot and Kavre—are also places where most Nepali Christians live. That morning, they had gathered for prayers. So the congregants were killed in the earthquake,” he said, adding that the quake destroyed 93 churches and damaged 500 more in central and eastern Nepal.

Out of a total 8,844 victims of the quake, 778 were Christians, with most buried while praying in two neighborhoods of the capital Kathmandu and in several hamlets of the badly-hit Sindhupalchok district. While many agree on the numbers of the dead, there is no consensus on the nationwide population of Christians in Nepal. The national census puts the figure at 300,000 while Christian leaders claim there are 2.5 million.

“After the earthquake, lack of space for burial in Kathmandu forced us to move the bodies to the districts where they came from. We had been demanding burial grounds even the day before the earthquake,” Gahatraj told Anadolu Agency.

The minority religious group has fought a long and hard battle for burial grounds.

In early 2011, the issue of Christian cemeteries came to the fore after the Pashupati Area Development Trust, an autonomous body that oversees the country’s oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the Shleshmantak forest for burials.

While dozens of bodies are cremated everyday on the banks of the Bagmati River in the temple premises, Christians secretly buried their dead in the nearby forest.

A prolonged legal battle and hunger strikes ensued. After a 40-day relay hunger strike in May 2011, the government agreed to meet the Christian community’s demands for burial grounds and formed a high level committee to look into the issue.

A year later, with the committee dragging its feet and the government reluctant to provide space for a cemetery, the Christian community resumed the public protests.

“Despite our protests and after several pledges, the government has failed to address our grievances. The state simply is not paying any attention to our plight,” Gahatraj said.

Aside from the state, the majoritarian Hindu community has also grown intolerant of the minority religious groups’ rights.

Gahatraj and Dev both cited incidents in which they were not allowed to bury their dead on riverbanks, with local people intent on denying them last rites in accordance with Christian rituals.

When a family buried the dead body of a 68-year-old Christian man on their own land, locals protested by pulling the body out and leaving it on the family’s courtyard, Gahatraj said, recalling the 2013 incident in the district of Kavre, in central Nepal.

“Then, we buried him on the banks of a nearby river. Even then, his body was unearthed,” he said.

Their attempt to give the dead man a modicum of burial was foiled again after they buried the body at a forest in Kavre district.

“It had already been several days since his death and the body began to decompose,” Gahatraj recalled.

He and the dead man’s family then hired a pick-up truck and drove several hours, first to Kathmandu and then further west.

When they were about to bury the body on the banks of the Trishuli River, a group of locals, having noticed the activities, arrived on the riverbank amid a glow of torchlight in the night.

“We were allowed to bury the body only after handing 5,000 rupees ($50) to them,” he said.

Tuesday 30 June 2015



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