Thousands protest jailing of Christians in India

5 000 people march in India to demand the release of six Christians charged with upsetting the religious feelings of others.

Originally published in UCAN India

Some 5 000 Christians marched silently through India’s Jharkhand state demanding the release of six Christians jailed last week on complaints of offering money to villagers to attract them to Christianity.

The September 25 ecumenical “silent protest” was organised after a local court on September 21 rejected the bail application of six Pentecostals, who were arrested September 15 from Tukupani village in Simdega district.

“We wanted them to be released because they are innocent people who gathered for a prayer,” said Gladson Dungdung, a Catholic leader, who was among those who organised the protest in Tukupani.

The court in Simdega district rejected the bail application of five men and a woman “seemingly under pressure from higher ups. But we are appealing to a higher court,” said Dungdung, who works for the rights of indigenous people.

The arrests followed a complaint by the village chief that some people were staying in the area and offering money to indigenous people to become Christians.

The arrested were charged with upsetting the religious feelings of others, district police chief Rajiv Ranjan Singh was quoted in local Hindi language media as saying.

New anti-conversion law
Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega said an “atmosphere of suspicion” exists after the state’s pro-Hindu government passed an anti-conversion law August 12. In several areas Hindu groups “act as if they have a mandate to keep a check on others, especially Christians,” he said.

The newly legislated anti-conversion law prohibits conversion through force or allurement or fraudulent means. Christian leaders such as Bishop Barwa say their services in the fields of education and health could easily be interpreted by Hindu hardliners as a violation of the law.

The law also stipulates that those wanting to convert from their religion to another should seek government permission. Violators can be jailed for three years and fined 50 000 rupees (US$800).

However, the police official said the six were not booked under the provisions of new anti-conversion law, which is still not yet in force as the administration has not framed rules and published them, steps necessary for the law to take effect.

Dungdung told that the arrest is “a clear message that the new anti-conversion law will be used as a tool to check the activities of some people and groups. Christians will have a tough time ahead,” he said.

An effort to terrorise Christians
Bishop Barwa said such false cases are part of an effort to terrorise Christians to turn them away from their faith, he said.

“We all stand united as Christians,” said the Catholic bishop, who was part of the protest march.

Neil Tirkey, former councillor of Simdega district and an organiser of the protest, said the harassment of indigenous people and Christians are engendered with the tacit approval of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party state government.

The arrest was the “handy work of government goons,” trying to suppress the ethnic minority people in the name of the new conversion law, Tirkey said.

Jharkhand has some 9 million people in ethnic minorities, who form 26% of the state’s 33 million population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics.

History of legal measures to stop Christian missionaries
Anti-conversion laws in India have a history of more than seven decades. Soon after Indian independence in 1947 politicians cutting across party lines clamoured for legal measures to stop Christian missionary activities in villages.

They alleged Christian social welfare activities and services in education and health care are a cover to attract poor villagers to convert to Christianity. They also said such conversions are creating social tension as Christians challenge local cultures, which included the Hindu caste hierarchy.

The first such law was enacted in 1967 in Odisha state. Such laws now exist in seven states including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.

However, no one has so far been convicted and punished for their religious conversions.

Hindu groups have now been demanding for a nation-wide law to ban religious conversions.

Although India’s 172 million Muslims are numerically stronger than its 28 million Christians, these laws hardly affect them. Traditionally, Muslims, unlike Christian churches do not engage in such social welfare activities among those from other religious communities.

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