A court in India has restored to an Indian-American doctor his Overseas Citizen of India visa by ruling he is allowed to practice Christianity and offer his medical services for free, even if that involves spreading his beliefs. Christian missionaries often face persecution in India due to strict anti-conversion and anti-proselytization laws in many states. (Photo from publicdomainpictures.net)
Delhi High Court recently quashed an order to deport a Christian doctor, India-born U.S. citizen Christo Thomas Philip, by ruling he has the right to practice his faith and offer his services for free, even if that involves propagating his faith.
Christian leaders and activities have hailed the Jan. 8 order as a landmark decision at a time when hard-line Hindu groups are trying to project Christian missionary services as a violation of the law and contrary to the national interest.
The Protestant doctor has "a right to practice his faith, and his rendering medical services, even if it is for the furtherance of his religion, cannot be denied," the court said in its ruling.
The deportation order for the doctor was issued "on the assumption that such (missionary) activities are against the law of the land" but such assumptions "are fundamentally flawed," the court said.
Philip was ordered to leave the country back in April 2016 after authorities decided that the services he was providing at a hospital in eastern Bihar state amounted to "evangelical and subversive activities."
Philip, 36, completed his medical degree specializing in emergency medicine in the United States and was granted U.S. citizenship 2012.
That same year, Delhi granted him the immigration status of Overseas Citizen of India, permitting him to live and work in India indefinitely with a de facto visa for life.
Philip moved to India with his family in 2013 and began working at the hospital in Raxaul, a busy town on the India-Nepal border in Bihar.
Things proceeded smoothly until he was detained in the wake of an overseas conference in April 2016, after which he was deported.
The government counsel told the court his visa had been cancelled by the Consulate General of India in Houston, Texas, because the doctor was found to have been indulging in "evangelical and subversive activities."
Anti-conversion laws are now actively enforced in at least seven of majority-Hindu India's 29 states. Uttarakhand became the seventh state to follow suit in May 2018 when state governor Krishna Kant Paul signed the bill into law on April 18.
Penalties for those who breach the law range from fines of up to 50,000 rupees (US$735) to a maximum prison sentence of three years.
These laws make conversions a criminal offense if they are done through "forcible" or "fraudulent" means, or by "allurement" or "inducement." Christian leaders say their services rendered in education and health care cannot be construed as a violation of these laws.
In Philip's case, the consulate also recommended that his Overseas Citizen of India status be revoked.
Yet the court dismissed those contentions, arguing that Indian law does not forbid people from practicing their faith.
"The (government) has not produced any law that proscribes missionary activities" in India, it ruled.
"It has perhaps escaped their attention that India is a secular country. All persons in this country have a right to practice their faith in the manner they consider fit, so long as it does not offend any other person," the judgment said.
"If the petitioner's faith motivates them to volunteer for medical services at a hospital, there is no law (certainly not of this land) that proscribes him from doing so," the court observed.
"This is a landmark judgment," said Tehmina Arora, director of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)-India, which has taken on Philip's case.
The judgment "protects the rights of foreign nationals working in Christian organizations to freely live out their faith in India," Arora told ucanews.com.
The court held that the Ministry of Home Affairs "had acted without any complaints of law and order problems," said A. C. Michael, a Christian leader based in New Delhi.
The ministry falls under the sway of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused of tacitly supporting Hindu groups that oppose missionary activities in several Indian states in a bid to further Hinduize the nation.
The latest judgment has set an important precedent by establishing the right to practice one's Christian faith by offering voluntary service, said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian bishops' conference.
The charter guarantees Indian citizens the right to profess, practice and propagate any faith of their choice, he said.
"If one's faith motivates one to volunteer for social service, one is free to do so. There is no law in India that stops people from doing so," he said.
Phillip is now living and practising medicine in Texas, U.S.