Pastor Keshab Raj Acharya faces a one-year prison sentence for his religious activities, marking a significant setback for religious freedom in Nepal, after the country’s Supreme Court upheld a previous judgment against the pastor, who now awaits the court’s response to his appeal for converting the sentence into a fine.
“Pastor Keshab must now face his prison sentence unless the court accepts his appeal to have the prison sentence converted into a fine,” the legal group ADF International, whose allied lawyers are supporting the pastor’s legal defense, said in a statement.
In a statement, Pastor Keshab expressed his distress but remained hopeful, calling for international intervention to protect religious freedom in Nepal, formerly the world’s only Hindu kingdom. “While facing more jailtime is distressing, I find solace in God, believing that anything is possible through Him,” he said.
Keshab, 35, leader of the Abundant Harvest Church in Pokhara, Nepal, thanked his supporters for their prayers and support for him and his family.
The case against Pastor Keshab began in March 2020 when he was arrested for inviting a man to his house for prayer, leading to charges of “outraging religious feelings” and “proselytizing.” The Dolpa District Attorney’s office filed charges under Nepal’s criminal code, which criminalizes religious conversions and propagation, with penalties including imprisonment and fines.
In November 2021, Pastor Keshab was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 20,000 Nepali rupees (roughly $150) for the alleged offenses. This sentence was later reduced to one year by the Jumla High Court. Despite his appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s decision, leaving Pastor Keshab with the possibility of converting his prison sentence into a fine as his only recourse.
Tehmina Arora, director of advocacy in Asia for ADF International, criticized the Supreme Court’s decision, highlighting the violation of basic human rights and the missed opportunity to set a positive precedent for religious freedom.
The Supreme Court’s decision came as a shock, especially as there were no witnesses to substantiate the proselytization allegation.
Junu Acharya, Pastor Keshab’s wife, expressed disbelief at the judgment and emphasized her husband’s innocence, stating he did not force anyone to change their religion. She believes the government’s actions aim to deter the Christian community in Nepal from spreading their faith.
Pastor Keshab’s ordeal began following a YouTube video where he offered spiritual guidance against COVID-19 in 2020. Misinformation about his statements led to multiple arrests and charges. Despite the lack of substantial evidence and witness testimony supporting his innocence, he was convicted.
The International Religious Freedom Roundtable and the U.S. Department of State’s 2020 report on International Religious Freedom have both called attention to Pastor Keshab’s case, deeming his arrest arbitrary and discriminatory.
Joseph Jansen, chairman of the advocacy group Voice for Justice, condemned the misuse of Nepal’s anti-conversion laws, asserting that Pastor Keshab merely exercised his right to freedom of religion without coercion.
The Christian community in Nepal has faced increasing persecution since 2018, with the criminalization of conversions being criticized for violating fundamental freedoms of religion or belief.