Nepal’s Prime Minister has committed to addressing the Christian community’s concerns over religious freedoms, reports Asia News. Some estimates put its number at four per cent of the population.

Dinesh Bhattarai, advisor to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, said the commitment “will be immediately put into practice and everything will be settled before elections”.

Prime Minister Deuba has also said that, to ensure the success of the elections, secularism will be more institutionalised and the rights of minorities protected.

Parliamentary and provincial elections are scheduled for 26th November and 7th December, respectively.

On Wednesday, Nepali Christian leaders submitted a petition to the prime minister, calling on the government to remove from the constitution the clause punishing religious conversions. “Christians have been cheated in the past with assurances that have never been put into practice,” said CB Gahatraj, President of the Christian Federation of Nepal, after submitting the petition.

In October, Nepal’s president signed into law a bill criminalising religious conversion. The move led Nepali MP Lokmani Dhakal to describe religious freedom in his country as “teetering on the edge”.

“The new law didn’t come unexpectedly,” according to Rolf Zeegers, analyst at Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit. “When Nepal became a secular state in 2008 Christians in the country experienced a huge increase in freedom. Christianity flourished and grew rapidly, tripling in size between 2008 and 2017 – this to the anger of Hindu radicals who have tried constantly to restore religious freedom restrictions ever since.

“One of their greatest achievements was the inclusion of article 26 [criminalising religious conversion] in the country’s September 2015 constitution.”

According to some reports, the growth rate of Christianity in Nepal is among the highest in the world. Critics often attribute this to the lure of money from ‘foreign organisations’ but anthropologist Ian Gibson, who has done a PhD on the issue, refutes this theory: “It is frankly laughable to suggest, as is done repeatedly in the Nepali media and by western anthropologists, that the majority of conversions are influenced by a desire for material gain. Anyone who has taken the trouble to speak with converts or observe their lives will see that the vast majority of them have, in material terms, lost far more than they have gained by converting – they are typically ostracised from their families and communities, disinherited, and are often discriminated against in employment.”