KATHMANDU (UCAN) -- Christians are welcoming Nepal's former communist rebel leader as the country's new prime minister and expressing hope that the new government will introduce "positive changes."
Prachanda, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal, took the oath of office on Aug. 17 in Kathmandu after he was elected to the constituent assembly that also serves as parliament.
Prachanda, meaning "fierce one," is the nom de guerre for Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who led a decade-long insurgency that claimed more than 11,000 lives, before entering into a peace process with the government in April 2006.
Bishop Anthony Sharma, apostolic vicar of Nepal, told UCA News on Aug. 19 he hopes the new government will bring about "positive changes ... the country had not been faring well in the hands of earlier governments and corrupt officials. Our good wishes and prayers are with the new prime minister so that he may meet the challenges ahead."
The Jesuit bishop also pointed out that "Prachanda took his oath of office in the name of the people, not in the name of God as is customary. For me, this means he will treat all people, irrespective of religion, alike."
As to whether the government of communists, known locally as Maoists, might adversely affect the local Catholic Church, Bishop Sharma said, "We have good relations with all Maoist leaders, so we don't have to worry about it."
Father Lawrence Maniyar, the Jesuit superior in Nepal, shares that positive view about the new prime minister. He told UCA News on Aug. 20: "We hope the new government under the leadership of Prachanda can change feudal Nepal. We also expect the Maoists to keep their promise of building a secular Nepal."
Nepal was governed directly by a king or officials he appointed until 1990. That year, pro-democracy protests forced the sovereign to allow multiparty democracy and reduce the monarchy's role to a constitutional level.
Freedom for religious minorities in this former Hindu kingdom also began only after 1990, but Maoists kept fighting to do away with the monarchy altogether.
Parliament then stripped him of most power and empowered itself to appoint the army chief, deploy military forces and remove "royal" from all official documents. The king earlier consolidated power in himself, contending this was needed to end the Maoist conflict. However, once parliament and the government were reinstated, the Maoists signed a peace accord with the government.
In April, the Maoists emerged as the largest party in the constituent-assembly election. The constitution it is to draft will, among other things, formalize parliament's 2006 decision to change Nepal from a Hindu nation to a secular state. Since April, the assembly has abolished the centuries-old monarchy and installed Ram Baran Yadav as the republic's first president.
Bishop Sharma remarked, "Though we Christians are a minority and might not be (directly) involved in decision-making, the constituent assembly may seek the feedback of Christians as it writes the country's constitution."
Kalai Bahadur Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal, an umbrella body of Protestant Churches, told UCA News on Aug. 20: "Prachanda's election is good not only for the Christian community but all sections of society since the Maoists have led a class struggle and committed themselves to fighting injustice, discrimination, suppression and oppression."
Rokaya acknowledged that the Maoists advocated secularism from the very start of their armed struggle, "but I wish and hope the new Maoist-led government does more for religious freedom."
Ganesh Parajuli, a member of Nepal Catholic Samaj (society), the legal entity that represents the local Catholic Church, told UCA News on Aug 19: "I have faith in the Maoists. Christians will be a free and secure lot under the Maoists." He drew this conclusion, he said, because both Christians and Maoists "have been considered the champions of equality and justice."