MUMBAI – Almost three months after his arrest, a Catholic priest in northern India charged under the country’s controversial anti-conversion laws after a complaint from a member of a Hindu nationalist organization has been granted bail and is set for release.
Father Sebastian “Babu” Francis, director of social work of Allahabad diocese in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, had been taken into police custody Oct. 2.
On Oct. 1, a local leader of the right-wing BJP party of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with a group of supporters, reportedly had barged into a Pentecostal prayer service falsely accusing the pastor of religious conversion. When police arrived on the scene, they also detained the pastor’s brother, who is a Catholic and who is employed with the diocesan social work department.
Eventually four members of the family were arrested, and, when they phoned Francis for help, the 56-year-old too was taken into custody.
Bishop Gerald Mathias of Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, told Crux at the time that the arrests amount to “sheer harassment of Christians.”
“The accusation of conversion is baseless,” Mathias said, ascribing the arrest of Babu to “sheer high-handedness of the police, who are simply under control of the right-wing BJP party.”
“The fundamentalists are going around as vigilantes to prevent even prayer meetings and worship of the faithful,” Mathias said. “Police simply arrest Christians without verifying facts, with no evidence just because someone has complained.”
In the wake of news that the cleric was set for release, Mathias told Crux he was “delighted.”
“We thank God for answering the prayers of so many clergy, religious and faithful for the release of Fr. Babu and others arrested on false charges of forced conversion,” he said. “Now they can celebrate Christmas and praise God for his mercies.”
At the same time, Mathias continued to object to what he described as the use of the anti-conversion law to harass religious minorities.
“There are still many pastors and faithful languishing in jail. May the courts release them too,” he said.
“The draconian anti-conversion law of Uttar Pradesh has been grossly misused … going against the constitution both in letter and spirit it needs to be challenged” in the courts, Mathias said.
News of Francis’s release was first communicated by Bishop Louis Mascarenhas of Allahabad in a message to clergy and religious in the diocese.
“With God’s grace and your prayers, Fr. Babu Francis has been granted bail. We received the bail order at 5.10 p.m. today (Dec. 20),” Mascarenhas wrote. “He will come out very soon along with others. Let’s thank God for His great gift for Christmas 2023.”
“I thank you all for your constant prayers and support during this difficult time. Their innocent suffering will not go in vain, it will strengthen the church and faith to work for the Lord,” the bishop wrote.
Mascarenhas asked local priests to offer Thanksgiving Masses for the release of Francis on Dec. 21.
Like Mathias, Mascarenhas too described the use of anti-conversion laws in the state as a threat to religious freedom.
“It’s a total misuse of the law,” he said at the time of Francis’s arrest in early October. “The police are working under the pressure of some groups, and not according to the constitution,” he said, referring to Hindu nationalist movements.
“The local Christian community is in trauma, frightened,” Mascarenhas said. “Anyone could be implicated at any time.”