Though it is a crime to proselytise for another faith in Nepal, Christian missionaries nonetheless go there to share the Christian message.
Korean Pastor Pang Chang-in proclaims, “Victory to Jesus!” as he blesses a brand new church in the Himalayan village of Jharlang.
The newly converted congregation joins hands in prayer. The majority originate from the indigenous Tamang people, who traditionally practised the Lama religion.
The Tamang are “poor financially and spiritually,” in Pang’s estimation.
A miracle occurs, he claims, and everyone in the hamlet becomes a believer.
Many South Koreans like Pang have gone to Nepal, a former Hindu kingdom and the birthplace of Lord Buddha, to serve as Christian missionaries, and their efforts have resulted in one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian communities.
The majority of Nepal’s recent Christian growth has come from the so-called Dalit population, which is at the bottom of the Hindu caste order, and from indigenous people.
Like Pang says, they might even have faith in miracles, but for them, conversion is also a way out of poverty and prejudice.
During his twenty years in Nepal, Pang has presided over the construction of approximately seventy churches, most of them in the Dhading area, about two hours to the north-west of Kathmandu. He claims that the community provides the property for free and that Korean churches chip in financially to build the temple.
Churches are being constructed “in nearly every mountain valley,” as Pang puts it.
Although an exaggeration, it is undeniable that the number of churches in Nepal has grown substantially in recent decades. According to the most recent study of Christians in the country, there are 7,758 churches in what is still primarily a Hindu nation.
Much of this shift can be attributed to South Korea. Only a couple of decades after first sending Christian missionaries abroad, Korea is now one of the largest sending nations in the world, with over 22,000 serving overseas.
Korean Christian missionaries, fueled by the fervour of the converted, have earned a reputation for actively venturing to, and sometimes being evicted from, the world’s most inhospitable regions in search of converts.
With the adoption of a secular constitution in 2015, Nepal became an officially atheist nation.
However, as April 2018, anyone convicted of inciting someone to change their faith faces up to five years in prison.
The anti-conversion law causes Pang and his wife, Lee Jeong-hee, “constant tension and nervousness,” as Lee relates.
“But this apprehension must not deter us from sharing the faith. It is not in our nature to give up on rescuing lives.”
Before starting a family, the couple worked as bankers. Lee Jeong-hee says her husband “first got God’s calling” and that “shortly after God urged us to move to Nepal.”
In 2003, they visited, and the Hindu royal family was still in control.
Idol worship was widespread, and Pang was surprised to witness it. As a missionary, I knew Nepal needed the gospel.
In 2008, a coalition government took control in Nepal and removed the country’s 240-year-old monarchy, making it a secular republic.
The missionary activity, according to Pang, has entered a new era of prosperity.
His family is among the about 300 Korean missionary households now serving in Nepal.
Koreans in Kathmandu tend to live in the city’s southern suburbs.
At now, there are no recognised Christian missionaries among the congregation. They are here legally on a student or work visa. There are those who operate eateries, while others whose focus is on charity work.
Pang and his wife were the only ones within the Korean missionary community who were willing to talk honestly with us during the weeks we spent with them. “I’m open to discuss what God is doing in Nepal,” Pang says.
Since they are not actively proselytising or performing baptisms, he does not see their activities as illegal.
“No one should think our missionary efforts are all about them. It is God who is working. By God’s grace, we hope to demonstrate his mighty hand at work in Nepal “As he puts it.
While Hindus make up around 80% of Nepal’s population and Buddhists 9%, the Christian community is steadily increasing, as seen by the latest census figures.
Only 458 Christians called Nepal home in 1961, up from none in 1951. In 2011, that number had risen to around 376, 000, and today, according to the most recent census data, there are somewhere around 545 000 residents.