Perpetrators break into Protestant church, burn contents in a state where a draconian anti-conversion law is in force
Christian priests along with devotees take part in a candlelight march for peace and harmony at St Paul's Church in Amritsar on Sept 3, 2022, following an incident in which four masked men allegedly vandalized a statue inside the church. An Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh was recently broken into and the contents set on fire by suspected Hindu extremists . (Photo by Narinder NANU / AFP)
Christian leaders in India have deplored the burning of a Protestant church in a central Indian state, which has enacted a draconian anti-conversion law.
The interior of the church belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh was found badly burnt on Feb. 12.
“We don’t know when the church was burnt,” said its pastor, Mahesh Kumre.
“We had our last prayer gathering on Feb. 5 and when we went to the church for prayers on Feb. 12 it was found burnt from inside,” Pastor Kumre told UCA News on Feb. 13.
The church, built six years ago, has a seating capacity of 1,000 people.
The perpetrators cut through a grill to secure entry and set on fire the Bible, prayer books, chairs, tables, fans, and donation box, he said.
They inscribed the name of the Hindu lord Rama in Hindi where ‘Hail Jesus’ was written. Rama is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities.
The church is located in Narmadapuram district in Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.
“We have lodged a complaint with police, seeking a probe,” Pastor Kumre said.
“It is unfortunate that a church has been burnt,” said Father Maria Stephan, the Catholic Church's public relations officer in Madhya Pradesh.
“Whatever might be the reasoning behind it, burning or desecrating a place of worship of any religion in a civilized society is not going to settle anything other than stoke animosity,” the priest said.
“It seems to be part of the same campaign against us on the alleged charges of religious conversion,” Father Stephan told UCA News on Feb. 13.
This is not the first time Christians who make up 2.3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people have complained of persecution by right-wing Hindu groups on the alleged charges of religious conversion.
In Madhya Pradesh Christians form less than one percent--just 0.29 percent of 72 million people.
The central Indian state is among 11 states in India that have enacted a sweeping anti-conversion law that imposes a 10-year jail sentence for converting to Christianity or Islam from Hinduism. The state assembly passed the law in 2021.
The law also criminalizes inter-religious marriages between men from Christian and Muslim communities with women from the Hindu religion.
The same law, however, does not oppose reconversion from Christianity or Islam to Hinduism as it is considered returning home (Ghar Vapasi) on the assumption that every Indian is primarily a Hindu by right-wing groups.
“We are being accused and targeted for religious conversion, but in reality, we don’t convert anyone except the fact that if someone wants to become a Christian, we don’t oppose it because it is his/her choice,” Father Stephan said.
“We want the government to form a coordination committee consisting of religious leaders to deal with issues like religious conversion so that it will help dispel any misunderstanding,” the priest added.
The United Christian Forum, which traces attacks on Christians in India, had recorded 22 incidents of persecution against Christians and their institutions in Madhya Pradesh till November last year. In 2021, the state recorded 39 attacks on Christians.
The number could be much higher as in many cases Christians did not report, fearing retribution as police often side with the fringe right-wing elements, church leaders said.
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