Some Holy Cross nuns visit a home in Madhya Pradesh, in this file photo. Religious have been advised to be cautious in their recruitment to avoid allegations by extremist groups misinterpreting their action as fraudulent means of religious conversions in India. (ucanews.com file photo)
A forum of Catholic religious in India has appealed to its members to be more cautious when recruiting new candidates to religious life and hiring domestic help in light of a changing environment that could easily see them accused of illegal conversions. The Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace (FORUM), which represents both Catholic priests and nuns, has circulated a 10-point guideline in July advising religious not to accompany candidates travelling to join a religious house. In a note circulated by FORUM, religious were asked to maintain documents proving the identity, age and religion of people joining them as staff or as novices. It was also noted that new vocations and new staff should not be offered money for travel or other expenses lest it be construed as an enticement for conversion. The guidelines came after at least three cases of harassment were reported against religious travelling together with others. Police issued fines after Hindu groups accused the religious of forced conversions. The cases were in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where a state law has criminalized religious conversion without state approval. The guideline also asked religious to verify documents to ensure that new religious candidates or workers were not minors and not to recruit anyone without necessary documentation. It also asked them to ensure candidates and domestic workers provided them a legally binding consent letter to join religious houses. The guideline was prepared by Holy Spirit Sister Julie George, a FORUM member and lawyer. She told ucanews.com that most religious, especially nuns, "are not aware of the changed environment in the country and continue to do what they did and which can cause trouble for them." Leaders of religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims say that after the 2014 general election, which gave a landslide victory to the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu extremist groups have stepped up their action to make India a Hindu only nation. Christian leaders have reported hundreds of incidents of violence against Christians by Hindu groups, including murder and rape. In most cases, police file charges of conversion activities and side with the attackers. The latest case includes abduction charges against Sister Beena Joseph, a member of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa congregation on June 15. Sister Beena was travelling with four tribal women when they were taken from a train to a police station after complaints. When the police could not corroborate conversion charges, she was accused of abducting one of women, who was mistakenly considered a minor. "We want to avoid this kind of harassment and therefore the guideline was issued," said Sister George. Father Maria Stephen, the public relations officer of the Madhya Pradesh Bishops' Council, said they have "already circulated a similar guideline to all the bishops and major superiors." "A hostile environment exists in the state and also in the country, which demands changes in the way priests and nuns function. We need to make sure no one uses loopholes in the law to harass our people," the priest told ucanews.com.
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