Faith in Jesus blossoms in Nepal’s prisons

December 24th, 2008 - 4:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, Dec 24 (IANS) When the first Christian missionaries started trickling into Nepal after the forbidden Himalayan kingdom was opened to outsiders following a pro-democracy movement in 1950, they chose to take the word of god to people who were treated as outcasts: lepers, prisoners and some of the most disadvantaged communities.Today, as the secular republic celebrates its first official Christmas Thursday with the Maoist government declaring Dec 25 a holiday, the birth of Christ is being marked devoutly in prisons in over 70 of the 75 districts.

“We have started singing carols and are reading aloud from the Bible,” says Bichhe Tamang, a 28-year-old who comes from one of the most exploited ethnic communities of Nepal.

Tamang is serving a 10-year term in Kathmandu’s Central Jail since a district court found him guilty of smuggling drugs three years ago.

“I had come to visit somebody in Kathmandu when police raided his house and he fled,” Tamang says stoically. “The cops found me and the drugs in the same room and I was charged as an accomplice.”

Sunil Darshandhari was arrested for allegedly being involved in a gang fight that led to a death, a charge that he is contesting.

During his stay in Central Jail, he came in contact with other Christian inmates and became a believer. Now transferred to another prison in neighbouring Lalitpur district, he has started a gospel association inside.

While priests from other religions have little interaction with prisoners inside jails, both Nepal’s Catholic and Protestant churches send pastors regularly to interact with prisoners. Besides religious solace, the priests also take medicines, food and warm clothing for needy inmates.

Dinesh Neupane was the son of a Hindu priest. However, the 46-year-old criminal lawyer says he was repelled by the exploitation in the name of traditional religion in Nepal, the caste discrimination and superstition and turned towards Christianity.

He became a convert 25 years ago when conversion was a punishable offence in the conservative Hindu kingdom and was disowned by his family and friends.

However, the strong-willed Neupane found his vocation among prisoners while making jail visits during cases.

“Nepal’s prisons are appalling,” he says. “Overcrowded and devoid of human rights, you have crimes committed inside, like rape and assault. Innocent children are locked up along with their parents. Criminals are regarded as pariahs. As Christians are a minority, a Christian prisoner is regarded as the worst offender.”

A two-week training programme in Singapore where he learnt about prisoners’ rights inspired Neupane to found an NGO, Prison Fellowship Nepal (PFN).

PFN publishes a magazine for prisoners - Prison World, runs two homes for children of prisoners and has started establishing mini libraries in jails.

It also runs a Half-way House that offers a transit home to released prisoners to facilitate their rehabilitation.

“I am Christian but the homes are secular,” Neupane says. “Their doors are open to anyone in need.”

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