Saturday, December 22, 2012

Review of "Early Churches in Nepal: An Indigenous Christian Movement Till 1990" by Rajendra K. Rongong

“I felt that a history of the churches in Nepal from a Nepali perspective would be worthwhile. This book is the outcome of that felt need.” So Dr. Rongong states in the introduction to his book. Dr. Rongong tells a story of an indigenous—or what some might call grassroots—Christian movement. While histories of foreign missions in Nepal, and the more prominent Nepali churches, have been written, Rongong focuses on the stories of smaller churches and how they independently conducted Gospel work in Nepal’s various towns and villages from 1951 to 1990 in the midst of persecution and Nepal’s first experiment with democracy, commonly known as the Panchayat years. Yet he also includes chapters on recent developments, such as Nepal emerging as a secular state and how this development has affected the relations between Nepali Christians and their country.

Dr. Rongong is well qualified to write such a history. A Nepali originally from Kalimpong, India, Dr. Rongong is a pastor at Nepal Isai Mandali (NIM), also commonly known as Gyaneshwar Church, one of the original churches in Nepal. He holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Southern Illinois University (which he received while on a Fulbright), and has had a distinguished teaching career within the country, including several posts at Tribhuvan University. As a result, while he is a well-known church leader, he is also respected in several civil and government sectors within Nepal. This work—171 pages in length—is published by Ekta Books, a large Nepali publishing house that primarily provides educational and curricular materials, and is currently priced at an affordable 250 rupees (approximately $3).  

Interestingly, Rongong does not dive immediately into the Church’s story in Nepal. He first gives an overview of the country of Nepal—geographic features, early history before Prithvinaryan Shah’s unification, and characteristics of Nepali culture and politics today—and a brief summary of the early history of Christianity, focusing on the Protestant Reformation. This beginning places the story of the Church in Nepal within both the larger context of Nepal’s history and culture, and the global history of the Christian Church. Rongong recounts these historical developments within Nepal: with Prithvinaryan Shah trying to unify Nepal into one country, the Capuchin missionaries present in Bhatgaon (now Bhaktapur) and Kathmandu—who worked there at the invitation of the (now overthrown) Malla kings—represented European policy more than Christian religion to this new ruler. Another religion in and of itself was threatening, since Prithvinaryan justified the existence of Nepal as a nation through the Hindu religion. When Rongong does begin the story of the Nepali Church specifically, he spends quite a bit of time on India—for like the democratic genesis of Nepal, the Nepali Church began in India in the late 19th century. Previous to Nepal opening its borders, Nepalis who converted in India attempted to go back to their towns and villages to share the Gospel, only to be escorted back to the country’s border. After the overthrow of the Rana regime and Nepal’s first experiment with democracy began in 1951, Nepali people who had encountered the Gospel abroad came back to Nepal to begin churches in their home towns and villages. The middle part of Rongong’s work is devoted to many of these individual church histories.

A large focus of Rongong’s work is on church persecution. While he weaves several individual instances into the specific histories of Nepali churches, and acknowledges that this persecution only made the faith of Nepali Christians more genuine, he does critique the oversight to persecution that Nepali government and civil officials have often given. While religious freedom has been a value since the inception of the democratic movement in Nepal—he mentions that one of the four stars on the Nepali Congress party’s flag stands for religious freedom (pg. 42)—it has been a long battle to obtain it. While he focuses on Christian persecution, Rongong more widely mentions the intolerance that Hindu Nepal has extended to any non-Hindu religion—including Muslims and Buddhists. Rongong expresses frustration that various Nepali officials with whom he as interacted (1) believe that all Nepali Christians are “rice Christians,” who have changed their religion because expatriates pay them money, despite evidence to the contrary, and (2) believe that there is full religious freedom in Nepal. Rongong recounts this particular instance: “It is difficult to believe that many educated and comparatively liberal people sincerely believe that there was full religious freedom in Nepal. The author confronted one of his colleagues who attended a United Nations Conference in New York and delivered a speech in which the person said, among other things, that there was full religious freedom in Nepal. Following the person’s return from the Conference the person was presented with statistics of Christians who were either in prison or on trial. The person was very surprised but refused to believe the evidence presented to him” (pg. 105).

Discussing the growth of the Nepali Church as attached to historical and political developments is a strong point of Rongong’s work. While the impact of Hindu nationalism on Nepali Church growth has been treated in other texts, Rongong provides more recent information on how the Church has fared since the second Jana Andolan (People’s Movement) in 2006, and especially since the dissolvement of the monarchy in 2008. These political reforms made Nepal into a secular federal republic. While peace, reconciliation and state rebuilding continue today, with Hinduism no longer an official marker of Nepal, the cultural and religious diversity of the country came out into the open. As a result, Christians and their religious practices have become more visible. For example, Christmas was made into an official holiday in 2008 (and the new Nepali President joined the Christmas Day service at Gyaneshwar Church!), and Christian leaders sent suggestions to the Constituent Assembly for the country’s new constitution. Among these suggestions were (1) honoring religious freedom, (2) providing a cemetery for Christian burial, and (3) declaring Good Friday and Easter Sunday as national holidays (!).

Rongong’s assessment of foreign mission work on church growth in Nepal is balanced. He points out that, because of the government restrictions on foreign missionaries, they were basically limited to providing medical, educational, and community development/infrastructural needs in the country, provided through INGOs like UMN and INF. While these foreign workers joined Nepali churches, and became active members, church leadership remained in Nepali hands. After the first Jana Andolan (People’s Movement) in 1990, some of that changed as Nepali churches made connections with denominations outside of Nepal, and Nepal became more available to traditional foreign mission work.

This book is not intended to be a scholarly work—Rongong says in his introduction that readers looking for such a work will be disappointed—but as a record of Church growth in Nepal from an insider’s point of view. I think second and third generation Nepali Christians will find this book a helpful reminder of their heritage and wider place in Nepali society and history—and because this book is written in English, it will most likely be widely read by the urban, educated, middle-class youth that are now integral to the Nepali Church. I would also highly recommend this work to foreign Christian workers new to Nepal, as a readable introduction to the Christian heritage that is present in this country.