Christians protest against persecution outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi in 2015. (ucanews.com photo)
Ten Christians have been arrested in two separate incidents for the alleged illegal religious conversion of tribal children in the western India state of Madhya Pradesh state.
The arrests have produced outrage among church leaders who described it as an "attempt to target and malign the Christian community."
In the first incident, eight accused were presented before the Ratlam railway court May 24 that ordered them to be held under judicial custody until June 6.
The initial charge against nine Christians was filed under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. The whereabouts of the ninth person is unknown.
The accused were arrested after 60 children were detained at Ratlam railway station May 21. It is alleged that Christians were taking the children for conversion in Nagpur, a prominent city in the neighboring western Maharashtra state.
Police said the accused maintained that the children were Christians and were on their way to Nagpur to attend a summer camp.
"We have dispatched a team to Nagpur to inspect the summer camp," Dhruv Singh Chouhan, deputy superintendent of the government railway police told ucanews.com.
In a separate incident May 22 two Christian men from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, were arrested on charges of attempting to convert 11 children to their religion.
The children and the accused, who were also on their way to the Nagpur summer camp, belong to a neo-Pentecostal group named Shalom.
A.C. Michael, a Catholic leader and former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, described the arrests as an attempt to slander the Christian community.
Michael told ucanews.com that the parents had provided written confirmation to the court confirming their children were Christians but "that was overlooked."
"We are planning to appeal in the high court in Indore against the arrests and judicial custody of these men," he said and questioned the handling of the case.
Church leaders in Madhya Pradesh also criticized the allegations. Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, who is based in the Madhya Pradesh state capital, told ucanews.com that Christians do not convert anyone through allurement, force or inducement as has been alleged.
He said that the vigilante groups, in collusion with the police, are leveling baseless allegations to defame the church and discredit its good community work.
"Too often, Christians are attacked, their movements are questioned and their prayer meetings are portrayed as conversion activities. It is a very dangerous trend which we are experiencing," he said.
"We have hostels for children from all communities. If we take them out for any program now, it is branded as a conversion. If that is true, the non-Christian children who studied in Christian schools should have become Christians," he said.
Bishop Basil Bhuria of Jhabua, also based in Madhya Pradesh, told ucanews.com, "We have been targeted through no fault of our own. Attempts have been made to portray the church as focusing entirely on conversions."
According to High Court lawyer Rajesh Chand, "The arrest of the Christians is unlikely to go to trial as the parents of the children had already denied the allegations of conversion."
Since the arrest, right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council) has stepped up pressure on the administration by calling for a probe into the Christians’ alleged activities.
A delegation led by council member Khum Singh May 23 handed a memorandum to the superintendent of police and sub-divisional magistrate in Jhabua district that accused Christians of indulging in the religious conversion of tribal groups.
Madhya Pradesh is one of the few states in India with a tough anti-conversion law. According to the law, it is mandatory for a person to obtain prior permission from the state government before converting to another religion.
The pro Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in the state 14 years ago, has been gradually promoting a Hindu ideology, critics have said.
Christians make up 0.3 percent of some 73 million people in Madhya Pradesh.