As you drive across the bridge in to Manahari, a small town in Makwanpur, you can see a lime green mosque on one side, the red and white stripes of a temple on the other and in the distance, faded Buddhist prayer flags hanging from roof tops. But hidden off the main road and among its small side streets are churches too — dozens of them. Local Christian pastors said there are two mosques, five gompas, ten temples and around 35 churches in the town. A local shaman put the number at 100.
Whatever the true figure, one thing is certain, Christianity is on the rise in Makwanpur. Rabindra Kumar Chepang, of the Nepal Chepang Association, said 10 years ago there were about 200 churches in the district, but today there are over 1000.
And it is not just in Makwanpur. The 2011 census recorded about 375,000 Christians in Nepal – a figure Christians say was a deliberate and significant underestimate – but current estimates are between 1.2 and 1.5 million. The World Christian Database claims Nepal has one of the fastest-growing Christian communities in the world.
This has not gone unnoticed in the Nepali media, which has been churning out countless pieces on it. But the reporting has been more polemical than analytical, portraying it as an artificial, and potentially dangerous, development. As a result, many ignore the multitude of factors that are behind the growth of the religion, instead explaining it as a form of Western neocolonial intervention.
But why are then so many Nepalis deciding to become Christians? There are at least four reasons.
First, some Dalit converts see Christianity as a way to escape the caste system. According to the Federation of National Christian Nepal, as many as 65% of Christians are Dalits. As one Dalit Christian pastor in a village near Manahari said, “The higher castes in the village used to treat dogs better than us… and generally they still do… but among Christians there is no discrimination… we are all equal.”
However, this does not mean Christianity is breaking down social boundaries. In and around Manahari, for example, churches appear to be formed along caste and ethnic lines, with different churches for Chepang, Tamang and Dalit communities.
Second, many converts said they became Christian after they were cured of a long or mysterious illness. They described these experiences as miracles, but also recognised that medicine (sometimes provided by the church) played a part in their recovery. In the absence of a robust public-health system, for some who don’t have the money to go to shamans or private hospitals, this is a powerful motivator. Given the prevalence of pseudo-scientific non-medics in not just the rural communities but also the cities, this should not be very surprising.
Money is an important factor, too. For many, Christianity is simply cheaper than Hinduism. One woman said that Hindu priests and shamans demand so many gifts for rituals that they “are getting fat on goats and hens.” Churches too expect Christians to tithe – give ten percent of their income to the church – but the Christians I spoke to said they were not forced to do this, and could replace a financial contribution with food stuffs.
However, in some areas Christianity is also clearly big business. As one pastor said, “Some Christians are just in it for the money.” Much of that money appears to come from overseas, in particular from Americans and South Koreans. A shaman in Manahari told me, “[Christian pastors] are greedy… They spend the whole time emailing foreigners to ask for money.”
In the aftermath of the earthquake, local and foreign Christians in Manahari were particularly active in providing material support. Some, like a local Hindu priest, see this as blatant opportunism. “After the earthquake… bibles came in sacks of rice. Bibles came with everything…. They are using money to promote Christianity,” he said. Others view it as Christians stepping in to provide an important social safety net where the government failed to do so.
But there is also an important, and often overlooked, reason: faith. While many Nepalis choose to convert to Christianity for very practical reasons – health, money and discrimination – it can often lead to genuine religious belief. For others, becoming a Christian is simply a matter of faith. As one Christian pastor told me, “I read all the different religious books, but when I read the Bible I found the answers to my questions.”
Cover photo by the writer.