INDIA: Thousands of Christians protest at arrest of Pentecostals

jharkhand-protestOn 25 September, 5,000 Christians marched silently through Jharkhand state to demand the release of six Pentecostal Christians jailed on charges of offering money to villagers to convert. The image shows Christians marching through a village in Simdega district.

The silent protest was organised after a local court rejected the Pentecostals’ bail application on 21 September. The five men and one woman, from Tukupani village in Simdega district, were arrested and jailed on 15 September following a complaint by the village chief that they had offered money to villagers to attract them to Christianity. District police chief Rajiv Ranjan Singh was quoted in local media as saying that those arrested had been charged with “upsetting the religious feelings of others”.

One of the organisers of the protest, Gladson Dungdung, who works for the rights of indigenous people, said: “We wanted them to be released because they are innocent people who gathered for a prayer.” He added that the court in Simdega district rejected the bail application “seemingly under pressure from higher ups. But we are appealing to a higher court“.

Jharkhand’s new anti-conversion law

Jharkhand’s government passed an anti-conversion law on 12 August, and Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega said the new law has led to an “atmosphere of suspicion“. He added that in several areas Hindu groups “act as if they have a mandate to keep a check on others, especially Christians“.

Jharkhand's Chief Minister

Jharkhand’s Chief Minister (pictured) has been pushing for the bill since December 2014, when his party, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and coalition partners came to power.

Gladson Dungdung told UCA News that the arrest of the six Pentecostals sends “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.” Bishop Barwa said such false cases are part of an effort to terrorise Christians to turn them away from their faith.

One of the organisers of the protest, Neil Tirkey, former councillor of Simdega district, said the harassment of indigenous people and Christians has the tacit approval of the BJP state government. He said the arrest was the “handy work of government goons” trying to suppress ethnic minority people in the name of the new conversion law.

The district police chief said, however, that the six Christians from Tukupani were not booked under the provisions of the anti-conversion law, as it will not come into force until the administration frames and publishes rules.

The new anti-conversion law prohibits conversion through “force, allurement or fraudulent means”. Hindu radicals often portray Christian missionary services such as schools and medical facilities as constituting allurement or force to secure conversions among the poor, and Christian leaders in Jharkhand, including Bishop Barwa, say they are concerned that Hindu hardliners could interpret their education and health services as violating the new law.

The law makes prior permission mandatory for conversion from one religion to another. Anyone wishing to convert must inform the District Magistrate of the reasons for, and the place of, conversion. Violators can be jailed for three years and fined 50,000 rupees (€653), with more severe punishments for using “force” to convert minors, women and members of tribal minorities and lower castes.

Effigy of archbishop burnedThe Archbishop of Jharkhand, Cardinal Telesphore Placidaus Toppo of Ranchi, said the law is “against the spirit and tenets” of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom to profess, preach and propagate religions of choice. Following his criticism of the anti-conversion bill, Hindu radicals burned his effigy (pictured).

Of Jharkhand’s population of 33 million, approximately 9 million (26 percent) are from ethnic minorities, including about 1.5 million Christians.

India’s anti-conversion laws

Anti-conversion laws, officially called “Freedom of Religion” laws, now exist in seven Indian states. They forbid conversion by “force, fraud or allurement” and state that those who wish to convert must first gain official permission and that religious leaders must report conversions or risk imprisonment. They are intended to stop Hindus converting to other religions (although those proposing the laws claim that their purpose is to deal with inter-religious tension) and militants often use them as an excuse to raid church services and harass Christians, accusing them of “forcible conversion” of Hindus. The laws have led to increased violence in states where they have been implemented. They are not used to stop extremist attempts to coerce Christians to become Hindus.

The seven states with anti-conversion laws are Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha (formerly Orissa). Hindu groups are demanding that anti-conversion laws be enacted at national level, and the ruling BJP has promised national legislation. The Evangelical Fellowship of India points out that this would violate the federal structure in which law and order is a state subject.

(Evangelical Fellowship of India, UCA News, World Watch Monitor)