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Court drops comment on religious conversion

Wordings ’unconstitutional,’ says nun who practices in the Indian Supreme Court

Supreme Court of India Supreme Court of India
  • Ajay Kumar Singh, Bhubaneswar
  • India
  • January 25, 2011
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The Supreme Court of India today withdrew its comments about religious conversion amid rights groups and Christian leaders expressing concern over such comments.

On Jan. 21, while delivering judgment on the murder of missioner Graham Staines, it said the missioner was killed because he was engaged in religious conversion.

The court Suo Motto repelled those wordings that were “unconstitutional,” said lawyer Sister Mary Scaria who practices in the Supreme Court.

The repelled paragraph of the judgment says Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, Orissa state, with an “intention to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity. All these aspects have been correctly appreciated by the High Court and modified the sentence of death into life imprisonment with which we concur."

The comment had sparked expression of dismay and concern across India.

The court has “in effect de-legitimized” the constitutional right to propagate one’s religion, said Mahendra Parida, an activist in Orissa.

The court made the remarks while upholding the life sentence given to the killers of the Australian Evangelical missioner in Orissa in 1999.

The prosecution had sought the death sentence for Ravindrapal Singh who led a mob that torched Staines and his two young sons.

Indian laws allow the death penalty only for the “rarest of the rare” cases and the Supreme Court agreed with the defense that Singh committed the crime to teach the missioner a lesson for indulging in conversion among tribal people.

Parida, a Hindu lawyer working among tribal people in Orissa, says the court stand “is disturbing and dangerous” and would embolden Hindu radicals who spread the misconception that Christians use social service as a façade to convert the poor.

Kedar Mishra, a journalist in Orissa, says the court’s remarks contradicted the constitution that allows a person to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion.

Shubhankar Ghosh, who looks after the works started by Staines, terms conversion as “a misnomer” since a federal commission that probed the Australian’s murder could find no evidence of conversion.

Bishop Thomas Thiruthalil of Balesore says the conversion charge is “a well-planned misinformation and excuse for dastard and diabolic attacks on Christians.”

The diocese covers the tribal village where Staines was killed.

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur quoted media reports indicating Hindu radicals’ plan to create “thousands” of Singhs to counter conversion in Orissa.

Reverend Pradeep Das, who has worked with Staines for a decade, denied the Australian had indulged in conversion. “It is quite painful to hear such remarks,” he told ucanews.com.

Joseph Dias, a Catholic lay leader in Mumbai, says the judges’ “inconsiderate statements” have hurt “law abiding” citizens and encouraged those indulging in hatred, violence and murder.

Related reports
Court upholds sentence for missioner’s killers
Missioner’s killer should not hang, Church says
Australian Missioner´s Murder Remembered With Prayers On 10th Anniversary

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