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MUMBAI, India – India’s Supreme Court this week dismissed a “forced conversion” case filed against a Catholic priest who organized a group to sing Christmas carols in 2017.
Father George Mangalapilly and another priest took 32 theology students from at St Ephrem’s Theological College for carol singing to Jawahar Nagar Bhumkahar village near Satna in Madhya Pradesh on Dec. 14, 2017.
A group of activists from the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist group, stopped the group and accused them of trying to illegally convert people.
The police detained the group of Christians despite their assurances they were just singing Christmas songs.
“I was arrested and got the bail on next day evening by 5:30 p.m. I was not in jail but more than twenty-four hours we were kept in the police station: 42 people – 32 seminarians, nine priests and one local driver,” Mangalapilly told Crux.
The carol tradition from the seminary in Satna had taken place for over 25 years, with staff and seminarians conducting carols, skits and other activities in the surrounding villages. Mangalapilly said that even though many non-Christians participated over the years, none of them had ever converted to Christianity.
For the past four years, the case has wound its way through the courts. Last year, the Madhya Pradesh High Court had refused to dismiss the case, sending it to the nation’s top court.
Madhya Pradesh is over 90 percent Hindu, and Christians just make up 0.3 percent of the population, compared to 2.3 percent in the nation as a whole. The state recently passed a Religious Freedom Bill, which despite its name is an “anti-conversion” law aimed at keeping Hindus from joining other religions.
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.
Madhya Pradesh – which is also ruled by the BJP – is one of several states in India to enact anti-conversion laws, despite the freedom of religion enshrined in India’s constitution.
Under the provisions of the new law, a “forced” religious conversion could lead to a one-to-five-year jail term and a minimum fine of around $350. If the person converted was a minor, the jail term and fine could be doubled.
Father Maria Stephen, the spokesperson for the Bhopal archdiocese, told Crux the Church was “very glad” India’s top court dismissed the case against Mangalapilly.
“The supreme court has reinstilled the faith of the people in judiciary. The case was agonizing us from pillar to pillar even though there was no merit in the case. We thank God for dismissing the case,” he said.