MUMBAI, India – Catholic leaders are protesting the arrest of two Pentecostal Christians in the city of Indore, located in central India.
Anita Joseph, 50, and Amrit Kumar, 51, were taken into custody on Oct. 23 by Railway Police as they attempted to escort six children to a prayer meeting in Kerala. The children were handed over to Childline, a child protection organization.
The police were notified by Hindu organizations, who accused the couple of kidnapping the children for the purpose of converting them to Christianity.
Indore is the largest city in Madhya Pradesh state, which has a population of 73 million. The state is over 90 percent Hindu and less than 1 percent Christian, and is ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also controls the national government.
The BJP has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
The police later admitted the children were from a Christian neighborhood, and not only did their parents know about the trip, some of them had dropped their children off at the train station.
Still, the two Pentecostals could face seven years in jail if convicted.
“This type of repeated harassment only on the Christians is very disturbing,” said Father Maria Stephen, the Public Relations Officer for the Archdiocese of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.
“The authorities have no patience to find out the reality and framing them as if they are going to convert is to be condemned,” the priest said.
“The [Hindu] fundamentalists consider the Christians as easy means to make their presence louder for their ulterior motives. We request the authorities to protect the fundamental rights of every citizen to travel freely with any one and everywhere, to practice and propagate one’s own faith and freedom of speech with responsibility,” Stephen told Crux.
In June, a religious sister in Madhya Pradesh was charged with human trafficking after being arrested by the Railway Police because she was accompanying four young women on a train to Bhopal.
In two separate incidents in May, groups of Christians in the same state were taken into custody and charged with trying to convert Hindus to Christianity, after being stopped on trains.
“This is a ploy by fringe elements, who for flimsy reasons, harass the Christians,” Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal told Crux.
“These sorts of incidents by these fanatic elements disturb the peace and freedom of people,” the archbishop said.
“These groups are emboldened by the tacit support of the ruling party, and the social disturbance caused by the fundamentalists upsets the social fabric of society,” Cornelio continued.
Incidents of harassment against Christians have increased over the past few months across India, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
On October 2, Cornelio led an interfaith rally on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth to “respond in a proactive way” to what the archbishop called “the present polarizing tendency by fringe elements in society.
“Good thinking people cannot sit silent,” he said.
Cornelio chose to highlight the figure of Gandhi because the “father of India” preached non-violence and constantly spoke about unity, peace and harmony in society.
Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the country’s constitution, several Indian states – including Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh – have anti-conversion laws aimed at preventing “forced” or “induced” conversions.
Joseph and Kumar were charged under Madhya Pradesh’s anti-conversion law.
“We are always on their radar and it is quite scary,” Bishop Chacko Thottumarickal of Indore told ucanews.com.
“We have to be extra cautious in managing our homes for children, women and aged people, as even a minor mistake can cause big problems for us,” Thottumarickal said.
A Church-owned youth hostel in Madhya Pradesh was closed by local authorities in September amid accusations of attempted conversion. The hostel had been established in 1997 to help members of India’s marginalized tribal community, who often have no access to education.
Cornelio pointed out the media also has a role to play in this, and should make sure they are not manipulated by Hindu nationalist groups seeking to promote sensationalist stories.
“These elements are keen to keep issues alive and publish all their anti-Christian activities in the media with plenty of photographs, however after investigations are done and the allegations are found to be fabricated and baseless, no clarifications are issued in any of the media, which had earlier given publicity to the incident,” the archbishop said.