Why does freedom of religion have such particular importance in Nepal at this moment? Well, until 2006, Nepal was a traditional Hindu monarchy but all that changed at the end of the 10-year war with the Maoist forces and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which set up an elected Constituent Assembly (CA) to agree a new Constitution "that fully complies with universally accepted fundamental human rights". The CA then took the decision to change Nepal into a secular democratic republic.

Nepal’s own Treaty Act of 1991 makes it clear that all its laws must obey the requirements of the international human rights treaties it has agreed to. Nepal has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in which Article 18 guarantees a person’s ‘freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.’

"CSW believes that it is vital that the anti-conversion clause in the new Constitution does not lead to the persecution of members of minority religions who wish to explain and discuss their beliefs with people of other faiths."

However, the new constitution of Nepal, passed by the CA and signed by the President on 20th September, does not allow that freedom to choose one’s own beliefs.

The key passage of the Constitution, section 26, reads as follows: “Any act which may be contrary to public health, public decency or morality or incitement to breach public peace or act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behaviour to undermine or jeopardise the religion of another is not allowed and such act shall be punishable by law.”

It is clear that the writers of these words do not view choosing and changing one’s faith as a positive individual choice and a right, as articulated in Articles 18 and 19 of the ICCPR. Instead, they frame it as something harmful that one powerful person does to another. The constitution has not just banned “enforced” conversion (which is a real danger for women in the Indian sub-continent) but all changes of religious belief, however freely chosen.

What are our rights when it comes to choosing our religion? The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) says that our rights include freedom to communicate our religion or beliefs, and "freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers". Our rights include the freedom to communicate, to share our conviction with other people of different convictions, and to try to persuade others in a non-coercive manner - all these rights are based on Article 19 of the ICCPR.

Indeed, in October, 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur warned the government of Nepal against criminalising the peaceful communicating of one’s religious beliefs to others ‘because this might pave the way for persecution of religious minorities.’

CSW believes that it is vital that the anti-conversion clause in the new Constitution does not lead to the persecution of members of minority religions who wish to explain and discuss their beliefs with people of other faiths.

Furthermore, individuals who help others, without coercion, to make a free choice to adopt a new faith should not be liable to prosecution.

There are reports accusing Christians in Nepal of "mass conversions" and there is an animosity from extremist Hindu groups towards Christians, which can turn violent on occasion. For instance, on 13th June, 2014, Christians from the Mahesh Thainju Gyaneshwor Church, Kathmandu, were baptising 36 people in the river, among them a man originally from the Biswa Hindu Parisad (BHP), when members of a Hindu group violently attacked them, complaining to the police about the conversion of one of their members into the Christian faith. One police officer could not restrain the Hindus and had to call in reinforcements; the Christians were detained by the police, but later released. This example illustrates the very real danger that the anti-conversion clause in the constitution might legitimise and encourage just such attacks.

Across the world, others are similarly concerned; a recent joint letter to the Government of Nepal by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable in USA, signed by a number of non-governmental organisations, including CSW, pointed out how section 26 of the new Constitution criminalises any act to convert a person from one religion to another. Yet a person’s decision to accept a particular religion can only take place with the assistance of others from within that religious community. Very few convert to Buddhism except by first talking to Buddhists and learning about the Buddhist religion. Likewise, very few become Hindus except by being taught the ways of Hinduism by Hindus. No religious conversion is possible without such discussion. Since the new Constitution criminalises these acts, in effect it makes conversion impossible - thereby completely denying the freedom of people to choose and change their religion.

While it must be noted that the new Constitution of Nepal reaffirms the status of Nepal as a “secular” state, it is hoped that Nepal’s political leaders realise that this means that Nepal’s government must maintain state neutrality towards all religions, behaving without bias towards or against any particular religion. This must mean that the state plays no role in the appointment of officials within any religion, does not give one religion access to buildings not available to others, and that it does not give financial aid to one religion that is not offered to any other religion. It is as yet unclear whether all political leaders in Nepal understand this aspect of the “secular” state. Nevertheless, it is most important that the state respects spiritual principles, and that it values every faith equally.

Martin Dore is Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Nepal advocacy officer. CSW is a UK-based religious freedom advocacy that works in more than 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.