Anti-Conversion in India
You’re sitting down together with a few close, Christian friends, when you hear it. The dull, faraway roar, growing louder.
Someone steps to the window. It’s a mob … coming for you and your group. In moments, they’re through the door, hurling you and your friends out into the yard, beating you, screaming hate and derision. They drag your pastor brutally through the streets to the nearest police station, where they demand—and get—his arrest.
They make it clear that, should you and your fellow Christians come together again, they’ll be back. If they hear of a prayer meeting, they’ll be back. And if they find you’ve led anyone else to Christ, they’ll bring the authorities back with them. And then they leave you with your wounds, and your bruises, and your fears.
In many parts of India, this is what’s known as freedom of religion.
It’s as diabolical as it is ingenious—public officials all over India have found a way to use the laws protecting religious freedom as the means of crushing religious freedom.
The violence began in earnest about 10 years ago, at about the time various states across India began passing what are known as ‘anti-conversion laws’. The laws are supposed to protect people from forced or unwanted conversions, by requiring everyone who decides to change their faith to report their decision to local district authorities. The authorities then launch an official inquiry, to determine whether anyone held a gun to the convert’s head—literally or figuratively—to compel their change of religion.
The ‘figurative’ aspect is where things get complicated. In the minds of the Indian authorities, explaining the Scriptural tenet that those who don’t accept Christ will go to hell is the psychological equivalent of holding a knife to the person’s throat. Either way, to them, the conversion was coercion, and the penalties—significant fines, even jail time—can be severe.
One impact of these laws has been to give a virtual carte blanche to Hindu extremists who believe India should be a one-religion nation. In many parts of the country, any allegation of forcible conversions is a good excuse for violence against Christians.
That violence is rising. In the now-seven Indian states that have passed anti-conversion laws, reports are growing of threats and intimidation, physical assaults, and sexual attacks against women. Christians have been attacked not only for meeting to worship, but just for coming together to fellowship or share a meal.
In just one year alone, the eastern state of Odisha saw 264 churches destroyed and 50,000 people displaced. And those weren’t isolated incidents—the mob violence broke out in every part of the state.
In another state, Madhya Pradesh, authorities on three different occasions have taken Christians into custody at public railway stations, on the grounds that the children were being ‘kidnapped to be converted’. Nine people were arrested for accompanying 71 Christian children to a summer Bible camp. A Catholic nun and four girls were detained. Two other Christians were picked up escorting seven children to a Bible study; the children were not allowed to see their parents.
In the state of Jharkhand, a government official blamed ‘those involved in conversions’ for being the leaders behind protests against a state effort to amend local land laws. State officials took out a full-page ad, twisting a quote from Gandhi to justify denouncing Christian missionaries for their evangelistic efforts among Adivasis and Dalits—two of the poorer segments of India’s caste-strict society.
For extremists, the message was clear: pastors and missionaries might have to defend themselves against charges of violating the anti-conversion laws. Members of a mob would not.
Although variations of these anti-conversion acts have been enforced in some states for half-a-century, officials have secured few convictions. But then prosecution is only part of the point. Charges of violating the acts are filed nearly every month, with the clear intention of intimidating Christians into silence, for fear of losing their freedom—or their lives.
In many places, the intimidation is working.
Rather than protect religious freedom, these anti-conversion laws have all but crippled it. They are a lightning rod for persecution.
It is a sad irony that all this persecution is happening in a country with a rich tradition and legal framework supportive of freedom of conscience and the right to practice, profess, and promote the religion of one’s choice. The Indian constitution, as mentioned, clearly guarantees religious freedom, as do several international covenants to which India is a prominent signatory.
The nation’s anti-conversion laws threaten to undermine all of that, opening up religious minority groups across the nation to religiously-motivated violence that’s all but sanctioned by state officials.
In other words, these anti-conversion laws are not achieving the very purpose for which they were created. Instead, they provide an opportunity for divisive forces to target the constitutionally-protected rights of minority groups and pose a serious threat to the free practice and promotion of religious beliefs.
More than that, these laws—euphemistically titled ‘Freedom of Religion Act[s]—make no reasonable allowance for individual free will. Instead, they are built on the assumption that people are just the passive, malleable recipients of spiritual and emotional pressures—with no capacity to think and choose for themselves what they want to believe.
‘We are a free people with a free will, and a free conscience, and free intelligence,’ says Cardinal Teleshore Toppo of the state of Jharkhand. ‘No one can force anyone to convert.’ Yet government officials and fanatical mobs alike treat most religious conversions as suspect and liable to investigation, prosecution, even persecution.
ADF International has been working for years in successful, effective cooperation with Indian allied attorneys to defend the victims of mob violence and these anti-conversion laws.
In each case, we are pointing out that these laws not only contradict the national constitution, but fail to protect the dignity of each person, and violate basic international human rights norms. Gradually, awareness is growing that the anti-conversion laws are not keeping anyone from being forced to accept a new faith. But they are forcing many people not to.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem like freedom of religion.
Will you join us?
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, ADF International reaffirms the fundamental understanding that human rights are based on the inherent dignity of each person.
Article 18 specifically references the rights violated by Indian officials—signatories of the UDHR—by failing to safeguard the freedom of religion and basic dignity of each human being. Christians in India are human, right?
Join us in the promotion and protection of your religious freedoms.
Add your voice by signing The Geneva Statement on Human Rights at www.ImHumanRight.org