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Indian state passes anti-conversion bill

Bishop Mathias concerned that Uttar Pradesh's minority groups will be targeted by new legislation

Indian state passes anti-conversion bill

Catholics pray during a Good Friday service at an East Delhi church in April 2019. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

A law to curb religious conversions done by force and fraudulent means was passed amid protests on Feb. 24 in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Bill, 2020, will replace an ordinance passed last November. The bill has a provision of imprisonment for up to 10 years and a maximum fine of 50,000 rupees (US$690) for violators.

“There was no need for a new bill as the state already had a bill to check religious conversion, but it is a matter of concern because it can be misused by majority groups in the name of forcible religious conversions, especially against minority groups,” Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Lucknow told UCA News.

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“The Catholic Church in the country does not promote or propagate religious conversion, nor believe in forced conversion, and there is no record of any religious conversion where the Church in involved in my state.

“We as a church are engaged in much charitable work and our main concern is anything can be considered as allurement. Any charitable work we do can be construed as allurement to conversion.”

Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has been an ardent proponent of bringing in a law to check conversions for marriage.

Muslim leader Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace, Varanasi, said the new law was not needed in the state.

“The Indian constitution guarantees us that we can practice and follow any faith according to our choice and bringing this bill is to check one’s faith, which a human right violation,” he said.

“The government should be serious about unemployment, hunger, poverty and youth. The world is talking about development and the government should focus on that.”

Haryana and Madhya Pradesh states, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recently brought in laws to check alleged attempts to convert Hindu women to Islam in the guise of marriage, often referred to as “love jihad.”

But critics say the move seems to have deepened communal fault lines, instilled fear among Muslims and made it tougher for interfaith couples to exercise their choice.

Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh conversion bill was passed despite protests from the Congress party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party.

Under the new bill, a marriage will be declared null and void if it is done for religious conversion. Those who want to change their religion after marriage will need to apply to the district magistrate.

The bill states that no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person from one religion to another by use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, nor shall any person abet, convince or conspire such conversion.

If any person reconverts to their immediate previous religion, it shall not be deemed to be a conversion under the ordinance.

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India with nearly 200 million people. However, only about 350,000 Christians live in the state, a miniscule 0.18 percent of the population. By comparison, Christians make up nearly 2.5 percent of the whole of India’s population.

The state, like the federal government, is run by the BJP, which has strong links to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

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