INDIA: 7TH STATE PASSES ANTI-CONVERSION LAW
‘Law is an instrument of persecution to prevent Christian witness’ – Release International
A seventh state in India has become the latest to pass an anti-conversion law, which Christians say will be used as a tool of persecution by right-wing Hindu nationalists.
Christians in Uttarakhand who share their faith face being accused under the so-called Freedom of Religion law. They could face a jail sentence of up to five years.
The new law requires clergy who lead a person to Christ to give one month’s notice before doing so, which will spark a police investigation into the proposed conversion. And individuals wanting to change their religion must first get permission from the state government.
‘These so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ laws have exactly the opposite effect,’ says Paul Robinson of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.
‘They are intended to limit the freedom of individuals to change their faith, and the freedom of Christians to share their faith. These laws are the result of a hard-line Hindu backlash to prevent the spread of Christianity in India.’
Hindu militants are alarmed by the spread of the Christian faith among the Dalit underclass. These are the so-called untouchables, who fall beneath the caste system. They are assigned the most menial jobs in society, because it is believed that this is their lot in life. But many Dalits are responding to the Christian message that they are loved and valued.
Under the new law, the minimum prison sentence for the ‘forced conversion’ of a Dalit, a minor or a woman is two years.
Uttarakhand is the seventh Indian state to pass anti-conversion laws. On the face of it, these laws are intended to prevent individuals being threatened or induced to change their faith. But they are wide open to abuse. Any warning of God’s judgement to come could be seen as a threat, and the promise of heaven could be seen as an inducement. And Christian charitable works could be seen as a form of bribery.
Attacks on the rise
‘For some years now, Release has seen a rise in the number of attacks against Christians and the church in India,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘This has coincided with the rise of extreme Hindu nationalism, which believes that to be Indian is to be Hindu, and will not tolerate other faiths. These anti-conversion laws are the result of that and will pave the way for further violence.’
Hindu radicals have made death threats against Christians in Uttarakhand and have ordered them to close their churches. According to reports, acts of intimidation are taking place on an almost daily basis.
Release partners report growing numbers of attacks on Christians in 23 states across India. Militants have beaten, threatened and killed church workers. They have tried to force Christians to renounce their faith and convert to Hinduism. They have bombed, torched, vandalised and demolished churches and Christian schools, and disrupted services and prayer meetings.
A recent report by the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India recorded more than 350 acts of violence against Christians in 2017. It warned the actual number could be far higher.
Right-wing Hindu nationalism has been gaining ground, particularly since the BJP took power in 2014. The BJP rushed through the latest anti-conversion law in Uttarakhand within six months of taking control of the state.
Anti-conversion laws are now in force in Uttarakhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand. Similar laws are pending in Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh. There have also been moves to impose anti-conversion legislation that would be binding across the whole nation.
‘Release has been supporting persecuted Christians for 50 years this year,’ says CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Increasingly, India has become a nation of special concern. Because of the intolerance of Hindu militants, persecution is rising. India is becoming a tougher place to be a Christian.’
Release works with its partners in India to provide legal aid and advocacy for persecuted Christians, give Bibles and train pastors.
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.
Sixteen Dalits in Jharkhand who had become Christians were beaten and driven from their homes by the village council. The council ordered them to worship Hindu gods. When the Christians refused, villagers tied their hands and legs and beat them. They also beat women and children who tried to help them.
In Andhra Pradesh militants beat a pastor to death. In Assam, a couple who had recently converted to Christianity were murdered in their sleep. And extremists raped and murdered a woman in Chhattisgarh.
In the same state, a pastor and his seven-month pregnant wife were doused with petrol by religious extremists, who threatened them with swords and demanded they chant, ‘Hail Lord Rama’.
In Uttar Pradesh fanatics who accused a Christian of converting Hindus, shaved off his hair, eyebrows and moustache and paraded him through the town.
Also in Chhattisgarh, a gang raped and murdered a 14-year-old Christian girl who was on her way to school. Villagers had excommunicated her family for accepting the Christian faith.
In Odisha, the body of a 64-year-old pastor was found near a railway bridge. His throat had been cut. The murder weapon, a long-handled knife, was found near his body.