MUMBAI – Both the bishops’ conference in India and a child care facility have protested what they describe as a pattern of government harassment of church-run centers for children, under the pretext of enforcing India’s anti-conversion laws.
In a May 31 statement released by Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai, secretary of the conference, the bishops describe themselves as “deeply saddened” by three such recent incidents in the Diocese of Jabalpur in the northcentral Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, which is currently governed by the Hindu nationalist party BJP:
- On March 2, members of the State Commission of Child Rights along with local police visited the St. Joseph Boys and Girls Boarding facility in Ghoreghat.
- On March 3, the same delegation of commission officials and police visited the JDES Boys and Girls Boarding center in Junwani.
- On May 29, members of the Child Welfare Committee visited the Asha Kiran Child Care Institute in the Katni district.
“What is common in all three incidents is that the officials entered the premises without prior permission, searched the premises, took away some files and questioned the children if they were forced to go to church and if they were forced to read the Bible,” the bishops said.
The prelates insisted the facilities are not engaged in illicit proselytism.
“While these boardings and hostels cooperate wholeheartedly in complying with all legal and government requirements, the members who visited these three places sought to unnecessarily harass the management and the children. They tried to make false allegations against the management and show how the children are getting converted to Christianity,” the statement said.
In addition to the unannounced visits to facilities, Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur and Sister Ligy Joseph of the Congregation of Mother Carmel, a Syro-Malabar congregation, were charged on May 30 in a complaint of alleged conversion.
“The Catholic Church in India strongly calls upon the state authorities of Madhya Pradesh and the central government authorities to stop this age-old ‘bogey of conversion’ which has no basis and has been brought up repeatedly to tarnish the selfless and dedicated service of thousands of priests, religious and lay people,” the bishops said.
In a separate statement, the Asha Kiran center, which serves children with autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental and intellectual challenges, also denied engaging in conversion of the children under its care.
“No one is converted to any religion in our institute,” the statement said, claiming that “the only aim” of the inspections and harassment “is to defame Christian institutions.”
“We do not promote any religion. We do not motivate any resident to learn Christian prayers. So we deny this accusation, as it is [politically] motivated and fallacious.”
The statement described an atmosphere of intimidation during the March 29 inspection.
“At first, two persons came to our center and removed all the staff and started inspecting the rooms and cupboards,” it said. “Later, Mr. Priyank Kanoogo came in shouting and frightening the children and the staff.”
Kanoogo is chair of India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
“He wanted to get into our worship place, which is part of our convent,” the statement said. “When we did not allow him to enter the chapel, fearing desecration as he had done in another center, he was insulting the nuns and telling that they are eating the money of the children and building up the churches. Insults were hurled at us in front of the children.”
Kanoongo, who has headed the national commission since October 2018, has accused Almeida and Sister Joseph of forcing three Hindu children in the Asha Kiran center to convert to Christianity.
The statement said the center will fight any charges in court, and accused Kanoongo of “putting children at risk and endangerment.”