A couple in Uttar Pradesh, India, have been released after being arrested for ‘allurement to convert’ by distributing Bibles.
Pastor Jose Papachen and his wife Sheeja were arrested in January 2023 in Uttar Pradesh, India. Their supposed crime? Giving Bibles to people. A complaint was filed with the police, accusing them of alluring people belonging to the Scheduled Caste and tribal communities into converting to Christianity. (‘Scheduled Caste’, sometimes known as Dalit, refers to a groups of people among the most disadvantaged socio-economic in India.)
Uttar Pradesh is one of twelve Indian states that have passed anti-conversion laws, and there have been calls for a nationwide anti-conversion law. In theory, these laws stop Hindus being forced or bribed to convert to other faiths. In practice, these laws are often abused to target and harass Christians and other religious minorities, or even to settle personal scores. There has been a steady rise in false accusations that Christians are trying to forcibly convert people from other faith backgrounds. There is no equivalent law about people being converted to Hinduism.
Pastor Jose and Sheeja were initially denied bail in March this year. On appeal, however, the Allahabad court in the southern city of Prayagraj said the couple could be instantly released and were not guilty of any crime.
"Providing good teachings, distributing Holy Bible books [...] do not amount to allurment." Appeal judge
“Providing good teachings, distributing Holy Bible books, encouraging children to get education […] and instructing the villagers not to enter into altercation and also not to take liquor do not amount to allurement,” stated the court in its ruling last month. It added, “Rather, it would be a failure on the part of the State to provide basic facilities to individuals in need of the same.”
Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law prohibits any attempt to force someone to convert to another religion (than Hinduism) through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by fraudulent means. The appeal court affirmed that Pastor Jose and Sheeja were not going any of these things.
Justice Shamim Ahmad also pointed out that the complainant was not one of the people who had received a Bible, nor did he have any connection to them or to the arrested couple. He was thus ‘not competent’ to lodge the complaint. Provisions in Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law stipulate that only a person who has been forced to convert or a blood relative of theirs can register a FIR [first information report] with the police.
However, recent research into more than a hundred FIRs filed in Uttar Pradesh reveals that the majority are not based on complaints by people who are directly involved – rather, Hindu nationalists ‘using the law to harass Christians’ and other third parties are filing the complaints, according to a report by Article 14. These have ‘no legal standing and should not have been registered by the police,’ the researchers add.
Conviction rates are generally low, said Rinzen Baleng, Advocacy Officer with Open Doors. “This is because there is a lack of clarity around the definition of what constitutes ‘misrepresentation’, ‘force’, ‘undue influence’, ‘coercion’, ‘allurement’ and ‘fraudulent means’. This then causes the case to fall flat when it goes to trial and the prosecutor is unable to substantiate the charges with evidence.”
The release of Pastor Jose and Sheeja is an encouraging answer to prayer – but they should not have been arrested in the first place. Please pray that this court case would set a precedent for other believers being allowed to share the good news of Christ in peace.
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