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Indian priest, 10 others get bail after one month in jail

They were accused of violating the stringent anti-conversion law in northern Uttar Pradesh state
Christian participating in a prayer meeting in the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh.

Christian participating in a prayer meeting in the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Facebook)

Published: March 12, 2024 11:29 AM GMT
Updated: March 12, 2024 12:00 PM GMT

Eleven Christians, including a Catholic priest, have secured bail after they were remanded under the stringent anti-conversion law in a northern Indian state more than a month ago.

The Barabanki district court in northern Uttar Pradesh on March 12 granted bail to Father Dominic Pinto of Lucknow diocese and 10 others.

“The district judge granted bail to Father Pinto and all those who were arrested with him,” Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Lucknow said.

They were jailed for violating the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, which criminalizes religious conversion without approval from the government, currently headed by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Police arrested the priest and others on Feb. 5 following a complaint from a right-wing Hindu activist, who portrayed a routine prayer service as a mass religious conversion activity. 

The prelate thanked God and all those who prayed for their release.

It was “a totally fabricated case,” said Father Donald D’Souza, diocesan chancellor and spokesperson.

The chancellor, however, did not disclose the conditions set by the court while hearing the bail plea.

Pinto, director of the diocesan pastoral center, was arrested after a Protestant group rented out the center and conducted their prayer service there.

The priest is among 15 persons, including five women, accused of organizing the service and the case was filed in Deva police station in Barabanki district by Hindu activist Brijesh Kumar Vaishya.

Pinto was not even part of the gathering, said D’Souza.

A Protestant leader,  who is extending legal help, said: “The case will not stand in court as the arrest and judicial custody were in total violation of the law.”

Under the sweeping anti-conversion law, a complaint has to be filed either by the victim or by his or her close associate in case of a religious conversion.

In Pinto’s case, the complaint was filed by a Hindu activist.

“Vaishya will not be able to prove his case,” said the Church leader, who did not want to be named.

Top courts in Uttar Pradesh and neighboring Madhya Pradesh, also ruled by the BJP, had restrained police from registering conversion cases based on complaints from unauthorized persons. 

Madhya Pradesh also has its anti-conversion law, which Christian leaders say, is being used to harass Christians. 

They say violence against Christians increased in Uttar Pradesh after Yogi Adiynath, a Hind monk-turned-politician, became the state chief minister in 2017.

The United Christian Forum, a New Delhi-based ecumenical group that records persecution against Christians, said from January to November 2023, Uttar Pradesh, the most populous provincial state, accounted for 287 of 687 anti-Christian attacks in India.

Christians make up a mere 0.18 percent of the Hindu-majority state’s more than 200 million people. Christianity reached the Lucknow diocese some 400 years ago.

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