|Maoist leader Prachanda (front row wearing garland) with Nepalis church leaders. Photo furnished.|
If pre-election promises made in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal hold true, we can put away those mental images of Maoists as the bad guys inciting violence in that country.
On April 10, Nepal held elections for a new constituent assembly and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won at least a plurality of the 601 seats. And who was its key ally? The National Council of Churches of Nepal. The NCCN is a new partner church of Global Ministries, the combined witness of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Just a dozen years ago, such a partnership would have been unthinkable.
Last year, the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, and the Rev. James Vijayakumar, Global Ministries' Southern Asia executive, spoke to a Napalis audience of 350 local church leaders. They said that God created the whole world, that all persons are God's children, and that the Christian faith calls Christians to work for peace and justice and democracy.
One Maoist leader in a similar church gathering responded that 11 years ago he personally had ordered that a church be burned. At that time, he said, the Maoists were fighting capitalism, feudalism and imperialism — and he saw the church as a visible symbol of western imperialism. So he ordered it burned.
But now, he said, I see that the church is interested in human rights, poverty, human dignity and freedom of speech. These are our fundamental values, too.
Decades of widespread human rights violations and poverty had led to the rise of Maoism. The Maoists took up the cause of farmers and the rural poor and took arms against the national army.
Their 10-year insurgency cost 14,000 lives.
Besides targeting the 239-year-old royal dynasty, the Maoists also took aim at the church, which they saw only as other-worldly and uncaring about the country's social, political and economical issues. Many in the church did hold negative attitudes toward people of other faiths, and refused to cooperate on common issues.
But another group of Christians was beginning to plan for a peaceful future for Nepal. The NCCN had been formed in 1999, but only became fully operational in 2003 when Dr. K.B. Rokaya became General Secretary.
In 2006, under a UN-brokered peace deal, the Maoists surrendered their arms and entered the political realm, effectively ending the civil war. Among other things, they agreed to the election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and create a parliamentary republic, thereby ending the monarchy.
After the cease fire, the NCCN played a major role in bringing all faith groups into the process of "building a new Nepal."
The Maoists' alliance with the church came about as they learned that the NCCN was concerned about working to alleviate poverty and defending human rights when abuses occur.
Will the peaceful efforts that led to the elections carry through to the rewriting of the constitution and the establishment of a new government?
Vijayakumar thinks they will. "This is a big revolution," he says. "The election is seen as a very positive thing by the church, as part of a growing awareness that the church needs to participate in the life of a new Nepal."
Critics note that although the Maoists say they do not want to go back to war, neither have they renounced armed struggle.
However, the former insurgent leader Prachanda, whose name means "the fierce one" in Napali, has pledged that the Maoists will be faithful to their mandate from the people "to consolidate lasting peace."