26 September 2019
India’s Himachal Pradesh State has passed a new bill against ‘forced conversion’. This requires anybody seeking to convert to another religion to inform a district magistrate a month in advance that they are doing so of their own will. The priest performing a conversion ceremony will also have to give a month’s notice. But local Christians are worried that the new law will be misused.
Illustrative image from an Open Doors partner's work with Indian Christians: pastor leads Bible study with a convert
Seven years in jail
Part of the bill prohibits the ‘offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification or material benefit, either in cash or employment, free education in a reputed school run by any religious body, easy money, better lifestyle, divine pleasure or otherwise’.
Indian Christians are concerned that this will be used to target them. An Open Doors local partner said: “This now means that anyone praying for others’ healing will be accused as someone who is enticing people by offering them a better lifestyle, divine pleasure or otherwise.”
Anti-conversion laws are already in force in seven other Indian states: Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Uttarakhand. Such laws have gained popularity in recent years, and Hindu radicals are calling for anti-conversion legislation to be made law at the national level.
The proposed punishment for those in contravention of this bill is seven years in jail. This is more than double the three years proposed by the existing 2006 Freedom of Religion Act, which the new bill seeks to revoke.
The bill also states that any person or organisation violating the provisions will not be allowed to accept donations or any kind of contributions from within or outside the country.
New rules for Christian NGOs
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs has introduced new rules about receiving foreign funds for all officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They will now have to declare to the authorities that they have not been prosecuted or convicted of converting anyone from one religion to another.
There are fears among India’s Christians that these rules will be used to persecute Christian NGOs, and that these NGOs will be investigated more often and asked to cease activities relating to Christianity. They are also more vulnerable to false accusations.
India is number 10 on the 2019 World Watch List. Christians make up less than five per cent of the population in India and face high levels of violence from extremists. Thousands of attacks take place each year, and these new laws are likely to make the situation worse.
Dear God, please protect our brothers and sisters in India from attack or false accusations. May they have grace and peace to be the light of Christ in their communities. We pray that violent extremists will turn to You. Amen