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Call for conversion debate in India seen as political ploy

Christian leaders claim BJP minister's comments are aimed at Hindus in run-up to election

Call for conversion debate in India seen as political ploy

Federal Home Minister Rajnath Singh addresses the Festival of Peace, organized by Christian forum Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh, in New Delhi on Jan. 15. (Photo by IANS)

Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh's call for a national debate on mass religious conversion is a politically motivated move ahead of the general election, say Christian leaders.

Addressing a Christian gathering in New Delhi on Jan. 15, Singh said religious freedom allows people to change religion but mass conversion is a national concern.

Christian leaders say the statement by Singh, who belongs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), aims to garner votes by supporting Hindu opposition to Christian missionary activities.

Singh should also acknowledge the Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) movement that reconverts Christians to Hinduism, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian bishops' conference, told ucanews.com.

He said the church does not promote or support any idea of using force or fraud to convert people to its fold. "But we do practice, preach and propagate the Catholic faith" and "nobody can oppose it because freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution," the bishop added.

Singh told the Festival of Peace organized by Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh, a national forum of Christians, that a debate is needed on mass conversion.

"If somebody wants to accept a religion, he should do that. There should not be any objection to it. But if mass conversion starts happening and a lot of people start changing their religion, then it could be a matter of concern for any country," Singh said.

He said that in almost all countries, including Britain and America, minorities demand an anti-conversion law. "Here [in India] I see the majority demand that there should be an anti-conversion law. Then it is a matter of concern. It should not happen," Singh said.

Occasionally, hundreds of socially poor Hindu Dalit people have mass conversions to Buddhism largely to escape caste discrimination.

No mass conversions to Christianity have been reported in recent years, while census records show that Christians comprise only 2.3 percent of India's population of 1.2 billion.

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However, the Christian population has increased in some tribal areas of eastern and northeastern states, which Hindus groups say has been a result of Christian missioners offering education and health care as an incentive for changing religion.

Christian leaders say their people have experienced increased violence and intimidation from Hindu groups since the BJP came to power in 2014 because the administration supports the idea of making India a nation of Hindu dominance.

Singh said some people are creating fear in society about the BJP.

"The BJP has come [to power]. Now there will be trouble, they say. We do not want to run the country by instilling a sense of fear. We want to run this country with a sense of confidence [among people]. Nobody should have a sense of alienation. This will be our effort," he said.

Christian leader A.C. Michael told ucanews.com if religious conversions violate the law, Singh has the power as home minister to take action. "Who is stopping him?" asked the former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission.

He said that despite seven Indian states having strict laws that criminalize conversion without informing state authorities, "no one, not a single Christian, has been convicted for forcing any one to convert."

"This is true despite an all-out effort by some groups to trap Christians in conversion cases. It simply means that Christians are not involved in any mass or forced conversion activities," Michael said.

Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum, told ucanews.com that Singh was speaking with an eye on the election due in April or May.

"Such calls keep the majority [Hindus] happy thinking that he is fighting a serious issue of Christian conversion to protect Hindu interests," he said.

"The majority unfortunately fails to understand that Christians are hardly 3 percent of the population. How come a majority is afraid of this tiny minority? It is just political talk, nothing else."

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