by Wesley Kawato
When people think about religion in Nepal, they usually picture Hindu shrines where people bow to idols. They also think about Buddhist temples with giant statues of Buddha. Only a few people know that Nepal has a small, but significant Muslim minority. Many of the ethnic groups that include a Muslim population also have a much larger Hindu population. For this reason, the Muslims are often overlooked.
How did Nepal come to have a Muslim minority? A look at a map of South Asia shows that Nepal borders northern India. Since many parts of northern India have had large Muslim populations for hundreds of years, it was only a matter of time before some of these Muslims migrated north into neighboring Nepal.
Historical records tell us that in the late 1400s during the reign of King Malia, a group of Muslims settled in Nepal. They were probably merchants who traded in goods that came from what is now India and Pakistan. In 1524, King Malia invited a second group of Muslims to settle in Nepal. These people were military advisors who understood how to use guns. They came from India and Afghanistan to teach the Nepali Army how to use firearms. King Malia also relied on these military advisers to protect him from rebels plotting his overthrow.
The descendants of these people formed a Muslim community in Nepal. During the 1700s Nepal unified under the rule of King Narayan who conquered several nearby kingdoms. During this period some Muslim merchants became diplomats because King Narayan found their knowledge of Persian and Arabic to be useful. Also during this period there was a third influx of Muslims into Nepal. Near the end of his reign, King Narayan began fearing that the Muslims he had invited to settle in Nepal were not loyal to him. In 1774, he expelled them from the country and cut back on trade with nearby Muslim nations. Many of the Muslims who’d been living in Nepal for several centuries feared this was the first step on the road leading to persecution, so they also left Nepal. They left so quickly that no one knows if King Narayan had actually intended to persecute Muslims. After 1774 there were few Muslims left in Nepal.
In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny broke out in India. Many Muslims joined this bid to declare India free from British rule. When the rebellion collapsed, many Muslims fled to the nearby Tarai Kingdom in Nepal in order to avoid being arrested as rebels. The Tarai is a low plain that borders the Himalayan Mountains and was one of the regions King Narayan had failed to conquer during the 1700s. One reason the Sepoy Mutiny failed to topple the British was because the King of Nepal had sent military aid to the British. As a reward, the British allowed Nepal to annex the Tarai Kingdom. That is how Nepal reacquired a large Muslim minority.
Since the 1970s, there has been a small, but steady influx of Muslims into Nepal from Bangladesh. Nepal may not be a rich nation, but it is much richer than Bangladesh. Many of these new arrivals are economic refugees.
According to the current Operation World, Muslims make up between four and five percent of Nepal’s population. Today there are 24 districts in Nepal with Muslim majorities. All of them are located in the Tarai Region.
Nepal’s Muslims are not a unified group. These people groups have vastly different cultures and histories. A family that has lived in Nepal since the late 1400s during the rule of King Malia may find little in common with a family that recently fled poverty in Bangladesh. In some parts of Nepal there are few Muslims or mosques. On the other hand, in the Tarai Region mosques are common. In some parts of Nepal a Muslim may know so little about his religion that he is a Muslim in name only. Such people celebrate Hindu and Buddhist holidays. But in the Tarai Region Muslims tend to be very knowledgeable about their religion and imams from India often teach at their mosques.
For many years Nepal discriminated against Muslims. Until the 1940s Muslims were barred from government run schools. Although this law has now been repealed, only a few government schools have admitted Muslim students. Illiteracy is a serious problem among Nepal’s Muslims. This is less true for those living in the Tarai Region. But even here many of the schools open to Muslims are seminaries that teach only the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book.
Prior to 2008 only Hindus had religious rights in Nepal. In that year the monarchy was “abolished” by Nepal’s parliament, and the country became a republic. The new government has adopted freedom of religion. For the first time Nepal’s Muslims have their religious rights officially recognized. During the days of the monarchy, Islam had been an illegal religion, but persecution had been infrequent. In many parts of Nepal there were too few Muslims to worry about. Government officials in such areas often ignored reports of underground mosques. Of course, because of the large number of Muslim communities in the Tarai Region, any attempts at persecution would have led to civil resistance. As a result, government officials never tried to forbid the worship of Allah in Tarai.
Recently there have been attacks against Nepal’s Muslims. The trouble started in 2008, shortly after the collapse of the monarchy. At that time Nepal had an army unit in Iraq. In 2008 Islamic insurgents in Iraq attacked that unit, inflicting heavy losses. Shortly after the attack there was a demonstration outside of a mosque in the town of Biratnagar, Nepal. During Friday prayers someone set fire to the mosque. Three people inside the mosque were killed, and dozens more were injured.
Today God is opening new doors for outreach in Nepal. After the collapse of Nepal’s monarchy in 2008, all laws making Hinduism the national religion were repealed. But there are many people today who would like to see the new republic declare Hinduism as the national religion. Such a law could potentially hinder efforts to bring the message of salvation through Christ to Nepal’s Muslims. Pray that these Hindu nationalists won’t succeed.
There is currently an open door for Christian teachers to start schools in Nepal that teach basic skills along with the message of salvation. Nepal’s Muslims have suffered centuries of educational discrimination. They now hunger for knowledge. Ask the Lord to raise up people to start Christian school ministries.
Since most of Nepal’s Muslims are illiterate, they might be open to gospel radio broadcasts. Christian radio stations don’t need to be located in Nepal. They can be located in India because many of Nepal’s Muslims live near the border with that country. Pray that God would lead people to start radio ministries.
Finally, let’s ask God to open the hearts of every Muslim people group in Nepal to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. These people need to know that Jesus Christ is the true source of salvation.
by Keith Carey
Dear Praying Friends,
This issue of the Global Prayer Digest started out as a prayer guide for Muslim peoples living in Nepal. As it progressed, however, our research showed us that most of the ethnic and caste groups included in this issue were related to parallel Muslim groups living in India and Bangladesh or to Hindu communities living in Nepal. Both India and Nepal are Hindu majority nations, and the Hindu-based caste system deeply affects the Muslim communities in that region. In Nepal the Muslims are working and living within the Hindu caste structure.
It is especially important to remember to pray for the Muslim groups in Nepal because they have small populations and are easily overshadowed by their Hindu and Buddhist neighbors. On the other hand, we must also remember to pray for the larger Hindu groups who are related to the Muslims and certainly also need to hear about the true and living God. So this month, while we focus mainly on the many small Muslim people groups living in Nepal, we will not forget to pray for the Hindus and Buddhists who also live in this mountainous country.
Managing editor, GPD