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MUMBAI, India – Catholic officials in India are objecting to the interference by government officials at a Church-run hostel in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
On Nov. 8, members of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) paid a surprise visit to the Bishop Clemens Memorial Boarding hostel in Intkheri Village in the states Raisen District. The hostel houses 19 high school students from the marginalized Tribal community, allowing them to get an education in the local public schools.
The officials accused the nuns running the hostel of illegally trying to convert the students to Christianity.
“The team entered the girls’ hostel without a female official and searched the dormitory and bags of the girls,” said Sister Jancy of the Sisters of Joseph.
They opened cupboards, checked the bags of our young girls They also found a copy of the Bible in the possession of Christian students and alleged the hostel was promoting religious conversion,” she said.
“The children are mentally traumatized. No conversion activities are taking place in our hostel. Five Catholic girls had their own personal faith literature,” she explained to Crux.
“The following day another team inspected the hostel and the students told them they were staying in the hostel on their free will as they did not have facility to attend school,” the nun said.
Bishop James Athikalam of Sagar noted that five of the students staying at the hostel are Catholic, and it was their literature the government officials said was “proof” of conversion activities. He also noted “only male officials” entered the all-female facility on Nov. 8, before female officers of the Child Welfare Committee visited the facility on Nov. 9.
“They checked the registers, attendance books, etc, and made remarks that there were a lot of deficiencies in the running of the hostel. They compelled the sister to sign the document, threatening that any deficiency could result in closure of the hostel,” the bishop told Crux.
“Those accompanying the officials, took videos of the entire ‘inspection’ and posted the entire incidents on social media, with false accusations, that conversions are taking place in the hostel. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights on Nov. 9 sent a letter to the district collector ordered sending the students to their homes alleging some serious lapses in their care at the hostel and has demanded action against Catholic nuns who manage it,” he said.
“One of the good services of the Catholic Church in Sagar Diocese is running this hostel. The poor tribal girls from interior villagers are empowered and given an opportunity to study. Besides, these tribals girls are given vocational training to make them self-reliant and financially independent. We are serving the poorest of the poor, of the 19 students, only 5 were Catholics, yet we are falsely accused and facing harassment,” the bishop said.
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.
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.
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.
Father Babu Joseph, the former spokesman for the Indian bishops’ conference, said the NCPCR was overstepping its remit in investigating the hostel.
“The NCPCR is entrusted with the task of ensuring the safety and security of children in the country and in this case there seems no serious cause of such concerns as the children were away in their homes,” he said.
“And if there is any stated objection by the children’s guardians then it should first be addressed to the management of the institution. No one is under duress to keep their wards in a hostel; it’s always done with the consent and knowledge of the guardians,” Babu said.
“Additionally, finding some Christian literature in an institution managed by Christian religious women does not amount to any offence,” the priest added.
“I wish that this same commission takes note of the safety and security of thousands of children living in the streets of Indian cities.”