Indian villagers carry branches to sell in East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand on Aug. 10. Archbishop Felix Toppo says an inquiry into church agencies aims to divide tribal people as Christian and non-Christian ahead of state and federal elections. (Photo by Sanjib Dutta/AFP)
Catholic prelates in India's Jharkhand state have asked the government to substantiate allegations of fund diversion for religious conversion as police continue to investigate nearly 90 Christian institutions.
The joint move by the eastern state's bishops came on Aug. 12, a day after the state's Criminal Investigation Department and Anti-Terrorism Squad carried out searches at the offices of Christian-managed non-government organizations (NGOs).
"We are accused of diverting our foreign donations for religious conversion but no evidence to substantiate the charges has been provided to us to file our replies," Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi told ucanews.com.
"We are not against any probe. We want the government to either make public or share the proof of the alleged charges of religious conversion so that we can give specific replies."
The investigation started after Anil Malik, joint secretary of the federal home ministry, on July 13 wrote to state chief secretary Sudhir Tripathy asking him to "expeditiously" conduct inquiries into the activities of 88 Christian-managed NGOs.
The letter, now in the public domain, said the federal ministry had received complaints that the "organizations are involved in proselytization activities through inducement."
In an official statement on Aug. 12, the regional bishops' council said that "specific allegations and facts regarding proselytization" are missing.
The bishops want the agencies to be specific on issues of violation and individuals and institutions that violated laws.
For instance, allegations have been made against the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India and the Believers Church. "But we are not sure who violated and what law," Archbishop Toppo said.
The bishops' statement said the general allegations against NGOs are aimed at "maligning and defaming" Christian organizations to project them as law breakers and keep people away from them.
The home ministry and its income tax department are in possession of audited statements of annual accounts these organizations filed annually in line with regulations. "Still they probe but nothing of the sort happens with pro-Hindu organizations," Archbishop Toppo said.
He said the move aims to divide tribal people as Christian and non-Christian in Jharkhand ahead of state and federal elections due early next year.
Pratul Shahdev, the state's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman, said the state government did not initiate the investigation but was following the directions of New Delhi.
He told media that state officials were only following the instructions of the federal home ministry. The outburst by bishops shows "their frustration … as the truth is coming out," he said.
Christian leaders say their people have been subject to harassment and attacks ever since the pro-Hindu BJP came to power in Jharkhand.
In several cases, hard-line Hindus attacked Christians praying in house churches, but the victims were arrested and jailed on charges of violating the state's anti-conversion law.
The law demands no change of religion can happen without the permission of the government. It also criminalizes converting people using fraud, allurement or indecent behavior. Missioners say their service in education and health services could easily be construed as violation of these terms.
In 2017, Indian Christians experienced 736 incidents of violence and harassment, and 22 such incidents were reported from Jharkhand, according to Persecution Relief.
Jharkhand has close to one million Christians, almost all of them tribal people, in a population of 32 million.