Religious freedom activists have welcomed the acquittal in Nepal of eight Christians accused of attempting to convert children by handing out a comic book explaining the story of Jesus.

In the first case to come before a court since the promulgation of the country's new constitution - which includes a clause forbidding conversion from one religion to another, the seven men and one woman - named by religious freedom advocates as Prakash Pradhan, Bimal Shahi, Banita Dangol, Balkrishna Rai, Philip Tamang, Kiran Dahal, Bhimsen Tiwari and Shakti Pakhrin - were arrested on two different dates in June this year and held in prison for nine days before being released on bail.

The arrests reportedly followed two counselling sessions at a school in Charikot in which they had been helping the children deal with the trauma of the 2015 earthquake which devastated the mountainous nation. At the end of the sessions, the children were each given a gift pack which included the 23 page comic book.

At a hearing on 6th December, the defendants, most of whom worked for Kathmandu-based NGO Teach Nepal but who also included school staff and a pastor, were informed the charges had been dropped. The court has also called for the return of the bail money to the eight Christians.

Pastor Tanka Subedi, chair of Dharmik Chautari Nepal and Religious Liberty Forum Nepal (RLF) said he was "very happy" with the court's decision. "This has raised our trust in justice and democracy in Nepal."

The acquittal was also welcomed by Mervyn Thomas, CEO of the UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. But he added that they joined their voices with those in Nepal urging the government to amend section 26 of the new constitution "and ensure that it – along with the draft penal code –guarantees full freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression".

"The right to freedom of religion or belief is of particular importance in Nepal as the country recently made the transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic republic."