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Church land probe sparks anger in India

Christians in Jharkhand say they are being targeted for protests against proposed changes to laws protecting tribal domains

ucanews.com reporter, Bhopal

ucanews.com reporter, Bhopal

Updated: July 31, 2019 06:05 AM GMT
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Church land probe sparks anger in India

Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das (left) talks to national government ministers Smiriti Irani (right) and Venkaiah Naidu (center) during the Momentum Jharkhand Global Investors Summit 2017 in state capital Ranchi. (AFP photo)

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Christians in India's Jharkhand state have claimed that a government plan to probe church land holdings amounts to persecution.

The state government is controlled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules nationally and has been accused of having an anti-Christian agenda.

"This is surely a vindictive action," Kuldeep Tirkey, leader of the ecumenical Christian Youth Association, told ucanews.com. "It is the latest in a series of such probes and actions taken deliberately to target minority Christians."

Tirkey said that since early July state chief minister Raghubar Das has been talking publicly about the need for a probe to determine whether or not church groups legally own all the land they are occupying.

At issue is the implications of two state laws called the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act of 1949 that prohibit outsiders buying traditional tribal land.

Most of the state's 1.5 million Christians are tribal people and many Christian institutions and parish churches stand on land said to have been donated by them.

If an investigation showed that some church-occupied lands were actually sold by tribal people to non-tribal missionaries, the state could initiate legally proceeding, church sources said.

Father Anand David Xalxo, spokesman for the archdiocese covering state capital Ranchi, said the Church had not received any official communications from the government about the investigation. "We have been hearing about such a probe from media," the priest said.

If and when there is an official notification of the government's intentions, church officials would respond, he added.

Christian leaders see the threat as part of what they regard as a vendetta.

A year ago, church groups led tribal protests that forced the withdrawal of proposed legislative amendments that critics said would have made it easier for the state government and commercial interests to deprive tribal people of ancestral land.  

Some 26 percent of the state's 32 million people come from indigenous groups.

In July last year, the state ordered a probe into whether 88 Christian non-government organizations were involved in illegal proselytization through the offering of inducements to would-be converts.

In April this year, the government recommended a federal probe into 31 of these 88 organizations to see if they used overseas funds for conversion activities.

Tribal leader and Christian Albin Lakra said the state government was misusing its powers to target minority Christians in order to gain the political support of Hindu nationalists.

Lakra said Christian missionaries worked tirelessly to assist impoverished tribal communities, not least through the provision of educational and health care facilities. "Now they are being persecuted by the government for their work to help tribal people assert their rights," he said.

Lakra said Christian groups would fight against arbitrary decisions of the state. "If its motive is genuinely to help tribal people, it should probe all properties owned by religious communities and business establishments," he said.

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