Indian churches fight new law on conversions

Published November 1, 2003

New converts receive Bibles from evangelists in India. Church leaders say a proposed law restricting conversions violate Christians’ rights.

New Delhi, India

Churches in India face a mighty challenge as the nation’s government plans to bring in a new law to prevent religious conversions among Hindus across the nation.

The law has no approval yet from the Indian parliament but proposal papers for the rule are currently with the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for consideration. The government is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); that party and its sibling organizations have long opposed conversion of Hindus into Christianity and Buddhism.

“This rule is not against conversion. We are just trying to regulate forcible conversion,” says Bizay Sonkar Shastri, chairman of India ‘s program for the protection of lower castes and tribal peoples. “Our aim is to ensure that secular nature and the principles of equality are not violated by conversions.”

But the proposals can acquire fearsome proportions once implemented.

The proposed rule says it will insist on anyone wishing to change religion to apply with an affidavit before a district collector or equal authority. Further, a written order granting permission must be procured from the official. If violated, the person could be punished with a fine of 1,000 Indian Rupees ($29) a day from the date on which the conversion took place. In a country where 350 million people are illiterate and 260 million fall under the poverty line, the rules also demand aspiring converts to have undergone higher secondary education.

Critics say the proposed rule is specifically aimed at Christian missions working among the poor, tribal peoples and Dalits, the low-caste Hindus.

“This is nothing but an attempt to keep the Hindu caste system strongly in place,” says Rev. Ipe Joseph, general secretary of National Council of Churches in India . “This violates our fundamental rights and our spiritual rights.

“The Christian idea of conversion is not changing one from one religion to another religion. It is the choice of one’s conscience. How can any rule prevent that? Besides, we have many politicians who have not been to elementary schools. So how can they impose this ridiculous rule on the majority?”

Anglican leaders like Mr. Joseph believe the church should stand up against the rule. “No lukewarm response is going to help,” he says. “We are born free and we believe Jesus is our saviour. But the church in India has not been able to stand up fiercely to defend our faith. It has responded in a subdued manner. Many church leaders still carry a ‘minority community complex.'”

The move to bring new laws on conversion was abetted by ruling of India ‘s supreme court on Sept. 1. The court ruled that there was “no fundamental right to convert” anyone from one religion to another.

But some assert that the propagation of any faith is still a fundamental right.

“We are here to propagate the Gospel through our words and deeds and who can stop us from doing that?” asks Rev. Enos Das Pradhan, the general secretary of the Anglican Church of North India.

Anglican leaders also point out that the church has to do some introspection.

“The fanatics are emboldened to pull out such rules from their kitty simply because Christians in India are a divided lot,’ says Mr. Pradhan. ‘So the first priority should be to start uniting. The (Anglican) Church of North India showed the way by uniting six large denominations in India . Such a process of unification should continue. Only then we can effectively fight such anti-social rules.”

They also suggest treading carefully in a communally surcharged society.

“I think some Christian organizations have to rethink their evangelist strategies. It is a volatile situation. We need not give the impression that we are here to convert the whole of India into Christianity. It will destroy the harmony remaining in our society,” Mr. Joseph adds.

The new rule follows several public events in which massive numbers of lower caste Hindu Dalits embraced Christianity or Buddhism to escape caste discrimination within Hinduism.

Joshua Newton is an India-based writer.


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