MUMBAI, India – A Catholic priest in India has called the arrest of nine Christians for “attempted conversion” a “travesty of justice.”
The Christians were arrested on Jan. 27 in the city of Indore, a day after a mob of Hindu militants invaded a Pentecostal prayer meeting taking place at the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra (Center for the Light of Truth), a media center owned by the Society of the Divine Word, a Catholic religious order that lets other Christian groups use the premises.
There were about 90 Pentecostal Christians at the prayer meeting, and one attendee claimed she was a Hindu whose family took her to the facility to try and convert her.
“I was born a Hindu and I practice the same religion…but my mother and those present there were forcing me to convert my religion,” the woman is quoted as saying in the police complaint.
The police registered a case against the woman’s parents and seven others on Tuesday under the provisions of the Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom Act, which was enacted last year.
Despite its name, the act is an anti-conversion law which forbids any enticement to change faiths. Madhya Pradesh is one of several states in India to enact such legislation.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, often storming into villages and leading “reconversion” ceremonies in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.
These pressures on Christians, which also affect Muslims and other religious minorities, are part of what observers describe as a broad program for the “saffronization” of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meaning an attempt to impose Hindu values and identity while squeezing out rival faiths.
Modi is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
Sajan K. George, President of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said the new law in Madhya Pradesh fuels anti-Christian activity.
“The Madhya Pradesh state government promulgated the Freedom of Religion Ordinance 2020, which provides for 10 years in jail in some cases if the accused is found guilty of conversion through fraudulent means. The new draconian anti-conversion ordinance is a tool for majoritarian vigilante groups to make false complaints to harass the miniscule Christian community,” he told Crux.
Christians only make up around 2.3 percent of India’s population. In Madhya Pradesh, they have an even smaller presence: Only 0.29 percent of the population is Christian.
“The ordinance is deliberately misused by right wing groups and vested interests to exploit the already existing communal tensions where the Christians are a minority,” George said.
Father Babu Joseph, the director of Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra, said the arrests were a sign of the decline of religious freedom in India.
“Arresting a group of people who were peacefully participating in a public prayer meeting based on an unsubstantiated complaint by certain hardcore organizations is nothing short of travesty of justice,” he told Crux.
“As a matter of justice and fairness those who trespassed the property and created a ruckus should have been booked, but then they are protected because of their political patronage, and under pressure those innocent people are incarcerated for no crime they have committed,” Joseph said.
“Is participating in a public prayer a crime in this country? If so whenever a satsang [a Hindu spiritual discourse] is organized by [Hindu leaders], it should also come under the cloud of suspicion. In a democratic country the citizens should have right to exercise their freedom of worship which seems to be on the decline in India,” the priest continued.
Joseph said the arrests were part of the agenda of Hindu nationals to “defame the Church and its institutions.”
“But we will not succumb to their nefarious plans,” he said. “We will carry on with our work for the development of all for the sole reason that India is the beloved country of all its citizens.”