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Church leaders deny 'reconversion' claim by India's Hindu groups

Some 120 tribal Christians reportedly 'returned' to the Hindu fold in a village in central Chhattisgarh state on May 17
Voters queue up to cast their ballot outside a polling station in Chhattisgarh on April 19. The central Indian state is known for its tribal population.

Voters queue up to cast their ballot outside a polling station in Chhattisgarh on April 19. The central Indian state is known for its high percentage of tribal population. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 20, 2024 12:17 PM GMT
Updated: May 21, 2024 05:53 AM GMT

Church leaders have refuted a claim by unidentified Hindu groups that some 120 tribal Christians have been "reconverted" to Hinduism in a central Indian state under a nationwide campaign targeting indigenous people and Dalits or former untouchables.

“There was a nine-day program in our locality where Hindu spiritual leaders conducted talks and rituals. Several tribal people attended it. But the claim by Hindu groups that tribal Christians were reconverted is not correct,” Father Akhilesh Ekka from Ambikapur diocese from Chhattisgarh told UCA News on May 20.

The priest who belongs to a tribal community said tribal people worship nature. "They are neither followers of Hinduism nor Christianity," he added.

Father William Urrey, vicar general of Ambikapur diocese, told UCA News that “the [reconversion] claim is an exaggeration.”

“They have no proof to show,” the priest said.

The news of the reconversion was published by Organiser, which is considered the mouthpiece of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other pro-Hindu outfits.

The publication claimed that around 120 tribal Christians from 50 families reconverted in Chando village in Chhattisgarh's Balrampur district on May 17.

The report, published on May 19, did not identify the Hindu groups that claimed the reconversion ceremony was organized on the last day of the Vanvasi Ram Katha (Spiritual talk on Lord Rama).

BJP leader Prabal Pratap Judev washed the feet of the tribal Christians with water from the Ganges, a sacred river for Hindus.

Chhattisgarh is ruled by a BJP government and has in place a sweeping anti-conversion law that disallows change of religion without informing government authorities.

However, in its report, the Organiser claimed that “large-scale reconversions have taken place in Chhattisgarh” under the Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) campaign.

The nationwide drive, started three decades ago by the RSS, aims to convert tribal and Dalit Christians to the Hindu fold, claiming Hinduism is the original religion of all Indians.

The Chhattisgarh government on March 3 introduced a bill to revise the state’s anti-conversion law. It requires individuals seeking to convert to another religion to apply at least 60 days in advance to the district magistrate.

The Chhattisgarh Religion of Freedom (Amendment) Act, 2006, in its current form requires the application to be submitted 30 days in advance.

The proposed changes will also have more punitive measures to stop fraudulent religious conversions in the state, known for its large tribal population.

It proposes a punishment of a minimum of two years and a maximum of 10 years in prison, along with a fine of Rs 25,000 (US$301) for illegally converting minors, women, or persons belonging to the tribal community.

Mass conversion is punishable by a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10 years, along with a fine of Rs 50,000.

The proposed changes, however, would not apply to those who want to convert back to their previous religion.

Anti-conversion laws with draconian provisions are in force in 11 Indian states, most of them ruled by the BJP.

The New Delhi-based United Christian Forum (UCF), an ecumenical body that records Christian persecution across the country, has recorded 148 incidents of violence against Christians in Chhattisgarh during 2023.

Christians make up less than 2 percent of the state’s 30 million people.

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