MUMBAI, India – Police in eastern India arrested a priest and catechist on Friday, accusing them of “forceful conversion” and the illegal occupation of land.
Father Benoy John and Munna Hansda work at Rajdaha mission in the Diocese of Bhagalpur in Bihar state. They were arrested in Agiamur, in the neighboring Jharkhand state, but within the boundaries of the diocese. Another priest, Father Arun Vincent, accompanied the two men in custody, but he wasn’t formally arrested and was later free to leave.
The police were acting on a complaint from a villager who accused the priests of exercising constant pressure for the locals to convert to the Christian faith.
“The current dispensation in Jharkhand is very hostile to Christian missionaries, and our services are selectively targeted and harassed,” said Father Alphonse Francis, the former Vicar General of the Diocese of Bhagalpur.
He told Crux the current allegations are “baseless and fabricated.”
Christians have been facing increased harassment in the state of Jharkhand since two women affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa, were arrested last year after being accused of trying to sell a baby from a shelter for unwed mothers.
The alleged child-selling has drawn criticism from Hindu nationalists of the charitable work done by Christian groups in the country, which they say is done for the purpose of proselytism.
Jharkhand is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is affiliated with a Hindu nationalist group and also holds power at the national level.
Christians make up about 4.3 percent of the population of Jharkhand, nearly twice the national average. Most of the Christians belong to the marginalized Tribal community, which are India’s aboriginal people who mostly live outside the caste system.
“Jharkhand wants to target the Christian mission in the state. The majority community uses false propaganda to damage all the health, welfare and educational services of Christians, accusing them without proof of having the goal of converting,” Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), told AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency.
Francis noted the diocese has had a parish in Rajdaha for over three years, as well as a retreat center.
“This is basically a land issue,” the priest explained to Crux.
“This land was offered to us, as under the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT), tribal land cannot be transferred or sold to non-tribals,” he said.
“This mission station had no compound wall, there was only a barbed wire around the area. I would like to know what provoked this arrest, never has there been any communal tensions previously. Our retreat center is also used for meetings of the local communities – of all castes and creeds – for self-help groups, and women’s group, and activities for children,” Francis continued.
A local Catholic, Augustine Hembrom, told the Vatican-affiliated Fides news service the Christian population in the area “totally condemn” the arrests.
“It is known that we Catholics believe in freedom of conscience and we would never force anyone to change his faith. Government authorities are aware of this. Therefore, the arrests are certainly instrumental, and they intend to hit Christians,” he said.
John Dayal, a Catholic human rights activist and secular leader, told Fides the incident reflects a broader trend in the country.
“What is happening in Jharkhand, in particular, and in the tribal belt in central India, is a cause for deep concern. There is a state sponsored by the federal government, which acts against religious minorities, affecting Muslims on the one hand and Christian clergy and educational institutions on the other,” he said. “The most worrying fact is the attempt to divide people according to religious affiliation. We are all Indian citizens. This policy of division must be defeated if peace and unity are to be maintained and democracy and development strengthened.”
In June, the the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) accused “a corrupt mafia of corrupt police and government officials, greedy politicians and vested corporate interests” of conspiring to take land from lower-caste Indians, members of the country’s Tribal People, especially in Jharkhand.
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