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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Nepal Hindus in secular protest
By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Hindus in Kathmandu offer prayers
Hindus form 80% of the Nepalese population
Thousands of people in southern Nepal have been protesting against a parliamentary decision to declare Nepal a secular, rather than a Hindu kingdom.

The mainly Hindu protestors in the southern town of Birgunj have declared a general strike in their area.

Eyewitnesses in Birgunj say the town has been closed down by an alliance of local Hindu groups, with some 6,000 marching in protest.

The country has been officially a Hindu kingdom for the last 40 years.

Divided opinions

With the symbolism associated with Hinduism, people are waving saffron-coloured flags, wielding tridents and shouting the name of the popular deity Ram.

They have also burned copies of a newspaper they accuse of favouring secularism.

Birgunj lies on the Indian border and local journalists say the protests have taken on the flavour of Hindu nationalist rallies more common in India.

Nepal is at least 80% Hindu. It has a tradition of religious tolerance and mixing, but also strong discrimination along caste lines.

Last week's declaration that it be secular is dividing opinion.

Organisations representing indigenous ethnic groups, many of whom are Buddhist, have welcomed it, so has a body speaking for the tiny Christian minority.

But some Hindu groups have expressed outrage, while others have questioned why change is necessary, given the country's general lack of inter-communal violence.

In a separate development, doctors across Nepal have gone on strike, protesting at the severe vandalising of two hospitals in different parts of the country.

In each case, large crowds alleged that doctors negligence had caused the deaths of patients.

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