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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibetan Muslims of Nepal: a minority within a minority

September 14, 2010

By Pratibha Tuladhar
September 11, 2010

Kathmandu (DPA) -- Ahmed Kamaal, 35, casually
dressed in jeans and T-shirt, looks more East
Asian than South Asian, as he sits in his Kathmandu office.

His Nepalese - sprinkled with English words - has a slight Tibetan accent.

Yet he represents one of Nepal's most established
Muslim communities, even though it consists of barely 50 families.

Nepal's Tibetan Muslims are the descendents of
Nepalese emigres who married Muslim women - for
which they had to convert - while they were in Tibet.

Kamaal's grandfather was the offspring of one
such union, and accepted Kathmandu's offer of
citizenship, which is automatically extended to
the descendants of any Nepalese man.

He moved to Nepal, his father's birthplace, but
brought with him his mother's Tibetan language
and customs, and her religion - Islam.

Since the 1960s, the political situation in Tibet
has encouraged those in the same situation to
claim Nepalese citizenship and return to the land
of their fathers or grandfathers.

Mohammed, 28, says his great-grandfather, an
officer in the Nepalese consulate in Lhasa,
married a Tibetan Muslim there. His family
returned two generations later, and has been living in Nepal since 1960.

The ranks of the Tibetan Muslims in Kathmandu
today have swollen to around 400 individuals, who
maintain their Tibetan language and Muslim
customs, and seldom marry outside the community.

Mohammed, who asked that only his first name be
used, has his great-grandfather's citizenship and
his great-grandmother's faith.

But like many other Tibetan Muslims in Nepal, he
was educated in a Christian missionary school in
India's Darjeeling district, just across the
border. At school, he said his prayers in a
chapel and sang in the school choir.

'When I came home for holidays to Nepal - twice a
year - I always said grace before my meals,' he
smiles. 'As I grew up, I realized that my family
did things differently. But a prayer is a prayer in any religion.'

Salima Khatun, 32, now works as a programme
officer at the World Food Program. As a child,
she attended a convent school in India, much like Mohammed.

'The trend of sending children to India for
schooling was very strong when I was growing up,'
says Kamaal, who was also sent to boarding school there.

'So the Tibetan Muslims, just like many Nepalese
who could afford to, sent their children to Christian schools in India.'

Demographically, the Tibetan Muslim community in
Kathmandu is dwarfed by the country's 1.2 million
Muslims. But their sense of belonging is unshaken.

'In Nepal, a Tibetan Muslim could never be an
outsider,' says Kamaal, recalling his childhood,
when he was in boarding school in India. 'The
moment we crossed the Indian border into Nepal,
there was this sense of security. It felt like we were already home.'

Mohammed peers across the street from his office
window to the Chinese embassy, the site of
frequent protests by pro-Tibet activists. 'I
sympathize with them, but I don't think of it as
my cause,' he says. 'When I think of home, I think of Kathmandu and not Tibet.'

When his house was threatened by an angry mob in
2004, after 12 Nepalis were killed by Muslim
militants in Iraq, Mohammed recalls how the local community came to their aid.

'It was our Hindu neighbours who stepped out of
their house and confronted the mob to protect
us,' he said. 'It was a shameful incident for a
country like ours, where we've always prided ourselves on religious harmony.'

Nepal, formerly a Hindu Kingdom, declared itself
secular in 2008 and national holidays include
Hindu, Christian and Muslim holy days.

On the streets of Kathmandu, Buddhist stupas and
Hindu temples jostle with mosques. Nepal's
biggest mosque, Jame Masjid, stands barely 10
metres from one of the largest Hindu temples in the city.

'One of the best things about being Nepalese is
that people never judge you for your religion,' Salima says.
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