Catholic priest, catechist arrested in India

Church leaders say the arrests in Jharkhand are part of a politically motivated campaign
Catholic priest, catechist arrested in India

The church and adjacent primary school in the Rajadah mission area of Godda district under Bhagalpur Diocese. A priest and a catechist were arrested and jailed on Sept. 7 accused of conversion and land grabbing. (Photo supplied) reporter, Bhopal
September 9, 2019
A Catholic priest and a catechist were arrested and jailed on Sept. 7 in India’s Jharkhand state after they were accused of grabbing tribal people’s land and engaging in forced religious conversions.

Father V.J. Binoy and catechist Munna Hansda, who work in the Rajadah mission area in Godda district under Bhagalpur Diocese, were arrested after a complaint by a villager.

Two villagers — village head Rameshwar Thakur and Charlis Hansda — were accused of the same charges but reportedly absconded.

The four have been accused of violating the eastern state’s stringent anti-conversion law, which prohibits religious conversion through allurement or force and without informing government authorities.

They are also charged with several violations of the Indian Penal Code including criminal intimidation of villagers, injuring or defiling places of worship, and deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of others.

Church leaders say the allegations and arrests are a political move.

“It is a politically motivated campaign against us for helping the poor and the illiterate in the region,” said Father N.M. Thomas, vicar general of Bhagalpur Diocese.

On Sept. 6 morning, police went to the residence of Father Binoy and his colleague Father Arun Vincent and asked them to go with them to meet the district’s police superintendent.

Police took them to a police station but allowed Father Vincent to leave. Meanwhile, they also arrested catechist Hansda. However, police kept them in custody for a day and night and took them to the top official only the next day.

The superintendent interrogated them and accused them of grabbing the protected land of tribal people and of enticing people to convert to Christianity. He also called media and narrated his “cooked up story” in front of the priest and catechist, Father Thomas said.

They appeared before a local court, which remanded them in judicial custody.

Father Thomas said the entire case is “a well-orchestrated conspiracy” as complainant Luckram Besra had been working with the priest until 10 days earlier.

Nine years ago, the mission received 35 acres of land from 20 people to build a church and a primary school. About seven acres of the land came from Besra’s father. Bersa, who was working in Assam at the time, objected to the deal when he came back some years later, and “we voluntarily returned three acres to him,” the priest said.

He also started working with the mission and now “we are accused of grabbing their land they donated nine years back. We have all the legal documents of the donations,” Father Thomas said.

Land laws in Jharkhand prohibit non-tribal people from buying the land of tribal people. The law was enacted to protect the land of uneducated and gullible tribal people.

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Church leaders say the state government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, began to target Christians after a tribal protest, helped by church groups, resulted in the government withdrawing its attempt to amend land laws to enable the government to take over tribal land for big companies.

Father Thomas told on Sept. 9 that he is confident the priest and the catechist will be bailed this week.

Tribal people constitute 16 percent of the 32 million people in Jharkhand. The state has some 1.3 million Christians or 4.3 percent of the population. Its Christian presence is almost double the national average of 2.3 percent.

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