KATHMANDU Hindu activists protested in the Nepali capital on Wednesday, saying the use of the word "secular" in the Himalayan nation's draft constitution would spur efforts by other religious groups to convert Hindus.
Hundreds of protesters wearing orange sashes blew conch shells and rang temple bells as they marched to a special constituent assembly tasked with writing the long-awaited charter.
"Our religion is facing a threat from the Christians who are proselytizing. We want to stop it," said Madhav Bhattarai, the chief of the Eternal Hindu Front group that organised the protest.
Politicians working on Nepal's first post-monarchy constitution face pressure to use the term "Hindu state", or include a guarantee of religious freedom, following overwhelming public demand to return to the former status of a Hindu nation.
Hindu political groups worry over evangelising efforts by Christians in a country where Hindus number more than 81 percent of a population of 28 million, with Buddhists making up 9 percent, Muslims 4.3 percent and Christians under 2 percent.
The number of Christians in Nepal is underestimated, said C. B. Gahatraj of the Federation of National Christian Nepal, adding that people were not being forced to convert to other religions.
"Hindu groups may have been alarmed by the fact that people who were praying quietly earlier are doing so openly now," Gahatraj said.
"All citizens must be allowed to practice the religion of their choice freely."
The impoverished nation, wedged between India and China, was the world's only Hindu monarchy until it became secular after emerging in 2006 from a civil war between Maoist rebels and the government.
Two years later it embraced democracy and abolished the 239-year-old monarchy.
Hindu groups have demanded that secularism be abandoned, saying it has encouraged religious conversions illegal in Nepal. Other groups deny this.
Religious conversions have been a hotly debated topic in giant neighbour India, where hardliners affiliated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party have often faced criticism for running campaigns aimed at reconverting people to Hinduism.
Nepal's long-awaited charter is expected to stabilize the country after the civil war that killed more than 17,000 people, but politicians have repeatedly missed deadlines.
Critics say the draft raises several concerns, such as the curtailment of women's rights. Another disagreement, resolved by politicial parties last month, centred on demarcating provinces in Nepal with names based on ethnicity.
Nepal is also recovering from the aftermath of twin earthquakes this year that killed 8,900 people.
(Additional reporting by Ross Adkin; Editing by Aditya Kalra and Clarence Fernandez)