MUMBAI, India – After the Supreme Court of India asks the central government to tackle the issue of “forced conversions,” a leading Catholic archbishop warns “what is at stake is not conversion but the right to freedom of conscience as also the right to preach, profess and propagate one’s religion.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court directed the government to step in and make “very serious and sincere efforts” to handle the “very dangerous” issue of forced conversions, saying the issue may “affect the security of the nation and freedom of religion and conscience.”

Hindu nationalists often accuse Muslims and Christians of targeting marginalized low caste and Tribal Hindus to convert through illicit means, such as offering them food or money.

Several states have already passed anti-conversion laws, which impose fines and jail terms for anyone convicted of a “forced conversion.”

Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore said the Catholic Church is completely opposed to illicit means of proselytizing.

“The learned Judges of the Supreme Court of India have rightly said that forced conversions is a serious issue. We deplore forced conversions as also fraudulent conversions. They are an affront to our dignity. We do not support these unethical moves,” he told Crux.

“On the other hand, wild accusations against Christians, which are motivated and cannot be proved is also not good. Ultimately what is at stake is not conversion but the right to freedom of conscience as also the right to preach, profess and propagate one’s religion, subject to public order, morals and health as enunciated in Article.25 of the Indian Constitution,” the archbishop said.

Article 25 protects religious freedom.

Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization. Religious minorities have complained of increased harassment since the party took power on a Hindu-first platform.

Incidents of harassment against Christians and other religious minorities have increased across India, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.

According to government’s own census data, the percentage of Christian population in India in 2001 was 2.34 percent, but in 2011 it had dropped to 2.30 percent.

Father Anand Mathew, a Varanasi-based priest engaged in interfaith dialogue, said anti-conversion laws are used to harass Christians.

“The truth is that so many Christians have been harassed and persecuted in the name of this very stringent and cruel law. But till today no one has been found guilty of this. No conviction has taken place,” he told Crux.

“Many have been jailed and they have been bailed out and cases go on. Such a lot of persecution. In Uttar Pradesh where this law was brought into effect from Sept. 27, 2020, we have had lots of problems. Each year around 200 cases of violence against Christians arise. There have been imprisonments, but no one has been finally convicted. All have been acquitted,” Mathew pointed out.

“So this is a myth created of forced conversions which is very unfortunate that the Supreme Court, the topmost institution of the country and the judges there also have fallen victim to this,” the priest said.

“No person with common sense or rationality can ever think of forced conversion. Here in Uttar Pradesh there have been many cases of very poor villagers like washermen and cobblers who have been accused of paying 30,000 rupees [$370]. To whom? To the upper caste village heads and all such people paying such money and luring them to Christianity. How insensitive and meaningless allegations,” he said, alluding to the idea that poor people were trying to bribe rich, high status Hindus to change religion.

“So it is really very sad that the Supreme Court has fallen victim to it and we need to challenge this,” he said.

According to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center, just 2 percent of respondents told pollsters they were a different religion than the one in which they were raised, including 0.4 percent who are converts to Christianity.

Pew said Christian converts in India mostly are former Hindus, but the survey also finds that Hindus tend to gain as many people as they lose through religious switching, with 0.7 percent of respondents were raised Hindu and now identify as something else, while 0.8 percent were raised as something else but now identify as Hindu.

Mathew said in his local area, Christians have spoken with the police to try and stop the spread of fake news concerning forced conversions.

“Most of the media, the print as well as the electronic media are also creating and propagating such fictitious stories. We said that there should be some controls. Some Hindu organisations have given the responsibility to spread these stories and file false cases,” the priest said.

“So we asked the people: If somebody is saying that they received this money that person should also be arrested because it is wrong to take money and get converted. Let them bring forward the proof, the notes or check given to them and let the police arrest the persons who took the money and the ones who gave the money,” he said.

“We constantly ask people: Is your Hindu religion so cheap that you can sell it for [$370]? Or with liquor or with promises of jobs? So these stories of allurement or inducement for the sake of forced conversion is such an unfortunate fictitious and mythological story created which should be challenged,” the priest concluded.