Spate of attacks by pro-Hindu group accusing Christians of fostering illegal conversions
Catholic bishops in Madhya Pradesh are urging people to take legal protection against anti-Christian violence in the central Indian state where a pro-Hindu party is in power.
The bishops' call came Aug. 13 at the end of their two-day meeting in the state capital Bhopal, where they focused on the dangers of religious extremism in the state.
Catholics, who comprise less than 1 percent of Madhya Pradesh's 75 million people, live in constant fear following a spate of attacks on them and their institutions, Church leaders said. Extremists have accused Christians of proselytizing in Madhya Pradesh, where religious conversion without government permission is illegal and punishable by a prison sentence and fine.
Violence against religious minorities increased after the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state 12 years ago. The party's victory in national elections last year further emboldened extremists, they said.
"It is regrettable that the Christians are under constant attack for alleged conversion charges," the bishops said in a resolution passed at the meeting.
Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur noted that India's Christian population has steadily dropped over the past 10 years. If the allegations of mass forced conversions were true, “our population should have increased," he said.
Bishop Almeida also talked of how Christians are being harassed. In March, for example, extremists in his diocese attacked a group of tribal Christians who had gathered in a school building for evening prayers. The attackers said the group was trying to convert non-Christians.
“We had all the valid documents to gather there but unscrupulous elements forced their way into the school and manhandled those sleeping and destroyed the school building," the bishop said.
In the first six months of this year, the state has witnessed at least 20 cases of anti-Christian attacks and incidents of police harassment. The attacks continue because of a lack of political will to "contain anti-Christian elements in the state," Bishop Almeida said.
India's secular constitution allows freedom to believe, propagate and convert to any religion of choice. Moves against such freedom could be challenged in court, said Father Shaji Stanislaus, public relations officer for the state’s bishops’ council.
Often, Hindu groups oppose Church social welfare programs, portraying them as fraudulent means to lure poor and tribal people to Christianity.But the bishop's council reaffirmed its commitment to carry out humanitarian work.
“We will not succumb to any pressure or threat," they said.
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