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Religious groups appeal for end to violence in Nepal

Bangkok, Thailand

With the Nepalese government and Maoist insurgents preparing to begin peace talks for the first time, religious groups in the Himalayan kingdom have called on both sides to stop the violence that has killed some 1,700 people and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Nepalese and forced Catholics to close schools.

In one of his first acts as Nepal’s new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba pledged to bring the five-year insurgency to an end and in July secured a truce agreement with the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

Maoists intensified their attacks in the Hindu kingdom after the murder of the Nepalese royals in late spring and installation of a new government. On June 1, Crown Prince Dipendra, a 30-year-old graduate of Eton College in England, opened fire, killing his parents, King Birendra Bir Birkram Shah Dev, 55; Queen Aiswarya, 51; a brother, Nirajan, 23; and a sister, Shruti, 25, before shooting himself.

On Aug. 18 the two sides preparing for peace talks announced they had each assembled three-person teams to meet and begin negotiating a lasting solution. No meeting date has been set.

Religious groups that have largely remained silent on what is perceived as a political issue have recently banded together to encourage the talks. A July 28 interreligious forum offered to help mediate talks between the governments and Maoists.

“We appealed both to the government and the Maoists to shun violence and to come for a healthy dialogue to solve our country’s problems,” said Fr. Silas Bogati, parish priest at Katmandu’s Assumption Parish, who represented the Christians at the forum.

“Now as the Maoists and the government are preparing themselves for talks, the whole country is waiting in great hope that we will have peace once again in Nepal,” Bogati said.

Bogati said that to date the government has not responded to the religious groups’ offer to help mediate the peace talks, but after keeping quiet for so long, it was important for the religious communities to have a say at this critical time.

Since February 1996, a rural Maoist insurgency in Nepal has resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,700 people. Maoists control at least eight of more than 70 districts in Nepal, replacing the government in collecting taxes and organizing education and health care. Raids on local government buildings in rural areas, especially police stations, have occurred throughout the West and South of the country, and their influence is felt even in Katmandu. Since last fall, Maoist insurgent activity has increased markedly, inflicting heavy casualties.

Bogati said, “The Catholic church is going through hard times because of the Maoist insurgency.” The church has had to close schools and withdraw personnel from rural areas because of the Maoist threat.

Catholics have a small presence in the Hindu kingdom. Jesuit priests have operated a boys’ school in Nepal since the early 1950s.

Earlier this year, Maoists ordered all private schools in three districts closed, including the three Catholic-run schools for poor children in villages about 100 kilometers out of Katmandu.

According to Bogati, the Maoists “want to make these districts -- Gorkha, Lamjung and Tanahu -- model districts,” which means only public schools can operate.

The Maoists also objected to private schools charging fees. Bogati said that although the Catholic schools set their fees low to attract poor students, they were still ordered closed.

Schools closed nationwide on at least two occasions this year when the Maoists issued blanket threats against schools and school administrators.

“I go once in a while to inspect these empty buildings,” Bogati said. “It breaks my heart to see our three schools [closed].”

In a particularly brutal week of attacks in April, in which the Maoists killed more than 70 policemen, Amnesty International criticized the insurgents for the execution-style killing of several police officers after they had surrendered and also for holding captives incommunicado from relatives and the Red Cross.

Nepal, a country the size of Tennessee situated on the slopes of the Himalayas, is bordered on the north by China and on the west by India.

Freelance writer Dennis Coday lives in Bangkok, Thailand.

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001