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Indian state to criminalize interfaith marriages involving conversion

Move is seen as a step against love jihad, which accuses Muslim men of targeting non-Muslim women for conversion

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Indian state to criminalize interfaith marriages involving conversion

Schoolgirls tie ceremonial threads on the wrist of Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh state, during a program to celebrate the Hindu festival of Rakhi in this file photo taken on Aug. 14, 2019. The state government plans to criminalize interreligious marriages involving a change of religion. (Photo: UCA News) 

A Catholic leader in India's Madhya Pradesh state sees a political ploy in a government move to criminalize interfaith marriages that involve religious conversion.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, based in the state capital, said the state government's proposal aims to appease the majority Hindu community rather than address any real issue.

Leaders of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the state government, said that during the legislative session starting in December they plan to make legal provisions to stop Hindus from becoming Muslims and Christians for marriage.

State chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan accused Christian missionaries of converting indigenous people while addressing gatherings in Umaria and Barwani districts, which are dominated by indigenous people.

He also advised missionaries not to offer their services in the hope of converting beneficiaries to their faith.

Madhya Pradesh is among states with strict laws to check religious conversion through allurement or force as punishable offenses. The law, ironically named the Freedom of Religion act, was enacted in the state in 1967.

The government has not yet released the bill's draft to reveal the quantum of punishment and other details. It is also unclear if the government plans to amend the Freedom of Religion Act or to enact a separate law.

Rameshwar Sharma, the state assembly's speaker, said the government plans to scrap quota benefits meant for women of lower castes or tribal people if they changed their religion and married Muslims or Christians, media reports said.

The government move is seen as an effort to end "love jihad," a term to describe Muslim men targeting women of Hindu or Christian communities for conversion to Islam by feigning love.

State home minister Narottam Mishra said the proposed law would make it mandatory for a couple to gain district authorities' permission a month before solemnizing their marriage.

A priest who officiates such a marriage in violation of the law can also be punished under the proposed law, the minister said.

Archbishop Cornelio told UCA News on Nov. 30 that the Catholic Church is not involved in conversion "through force or allurement" and it "was wrong to paint" the Church's charitable work as a facade for conversion.

"If the allegation was true, the Christian population would be much more than what it is today," he asserted.

For three decades, India's Christian population has remained at 2.3 percent of the total population, which is currently 1.3 billion.

Despite the law, no Christian has been convicted for illegally converting anyone, the archbishop said.

The proposed legal changes are "needless" and can "only be misused by vested interests," Archbishop Cornelio said. He said such moves would polarize society and eventually distrust among people of different faiths and communities.

"Now the government acts as if it has no other credible business to work for the welfare of the people. Such emotive laws aim to appease the majority community rather than focusing on people's welfare," he said.

Madhya Pradesh is considered a hotbed of violence against Christians. According to the latest report from Persecution Relief, 30 cases of hate crimes against Christians have been reported from the state this year until September end.

Christians make up just 0.29 percent of some 70 million people in the state, mostly Hindus. Muslims are 6.57 percent of the population, according to the 2011 national census.

Other religious communities are Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.

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