MUMBAI, India – An archbishop in India is denying the accusations of a Hindu nationalist organization that “forced conversions” are taking place in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – meaning Universal Hindu Council – announced it had identified 30 places in eastern Uttar Pradesh where alleged “forced conversions” by Christian missionaries are taking place.

“I deny this report, that forced conversion is taking place in Uttar Pradesh or anywhere in India. Any conversion is voluntary, and everyone has the freedom to follow the religion of his own choice,” Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Lucknow told Crux.

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India, with nearly 200 million people. However, only about 350,000 Christians live in the state, a miniscule 0.18 percent of the population. By comparison, Christians make up nearly 2.5 percent of the whole of India’s population.

Uttar Pradesh, like the national government, is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

The VHP is also one of the many organizations affiliated with the RSS.

Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using forceful and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions. They then storm into villages and lead “reconversion” ceremonies – called Ghar Wapsi, or “back to home” – in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.

Mathias told Crux that “forcing people with organised Ghar Wapsi programs are forced conversion, and this must be stopped.”

In November, Uttar Pradesh proposed an anti-conversion law, imitating several other states in India. Christians say such laws violate India’s secular constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

“Christians in India have constitutional guarantees to practice our faith, share the Good News and the message of Christ, which is for all humanity. This is not conversion nor is anyone forced,” Mathias said.

“At Christmas thousands of non-Christians come to our Churches and chapels to visit our cribs and light candles at the grottos. No one has invited them. They come on their own; thousands of families too with little infants come to the cribs during the Christmas season,” the bishop continued.

“Additionally, our churches and convention centers are open to everyone, all are welcome, we do not stop anyone coming to our churches,” he added.

“I categorically deny the false allegations of forced conversion.”

According to Persecution Relief, which tracks anti-Christian persecution and harassment in India, crimes against Christians in India increased 60 percent between 2016 and 2019, and despite its small Christian population, the majority of these incidents have happened in Uttar Pradesh.

“It is alleged that religious fundamentalist organizations in collusion with the local police attack several hundreds of churches in Uttar Pradesh every Sunday or on any prayer meeting or public gathering. Dozens of pastors have been arrested, and taken away for interrogation. Church leaders and churches are targeted as police raid and investigate them without a shred of evidence to support their allegations,” says Persecution Relief’s 2019 report, released in January.

The report claims that Hindu fundamentalist organizations believe and propagate the view that Christians are a threat to Hinduism and are apparently converting people to Christianity in large numbers.

“This political clash of philosophies and ideologies has resulted in major political ramifications, deepening the country’s political polarization,” the report says.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed an overwhelming mandate when the BJP won reelection by a large margin last year.

Many non-Hindu minorities say this has emboldened Hindu nationalists in their efforts to make India a Hindu state.

Father Anand Mathew said the VHP is now focusing its attention on going after Christians in the country.

“It has been happening already. The Christian missionaries who are genuinely working in the field are under threat,” he told Crux.

“There are many fringe elements of the Hindutva group who are causing trouble. Even the police who want to maintain law and order are not able to contain these unsocial elements as they have the blessings from those in power,” the priest said.

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