A 2016 file image of nuns on Palm Sunday in Ranchi the state capital of Jharkhand in India's northeast. Jharkhand's bishops have asked India's federal government to address allegations that the state government is harassing Christians. (Photo by AFP)
All nine Catholic bishops of India's northeastern Jharkhand state have sought federal intervention to stop Christians being treated like terrorists as part of alleged state government harassment.
The bishops told governor Draupadi Murmu, who is the representative of the Indian president, that the state government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had used its Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) to probe Christian institutions.
On July 30, three days after meeting Murmu, they also sent a memorandum to federal Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking his assistance on the issue.
"We are now treated as terrorists and officials of the ATS are after us as if we are involved in terrorist activities," Auxiliary Bishop Telesphore Bilung of Ranchi, who organized the meeting, told ucanews.com.
He said for the past few months, police had been arresting church people on trumped-up charges and investigators had raided Christian groups in "clear state-sponsored harassment."
In some cases, the ATS served notices on Christian institutions ordering them to produce financial details within 24-hours, the bishop said.
State police spokesperson R. K. Mallick termed the claims of the Christian leaders as "absurd".
The inquiries were being conducted on orders of the federal home ministry to investigate 88 Christian non-governmental agencies in the state, he told media representatives.
The head of the ATS and the head of the Crime Investigation Department (CID) is the same person.
"Notices may have been issued by him on ATS letterhead, but it is the CID that is inquiring," Mallick said.
The federal order for investigations came following allegations from the state government and influential Hindus groups that Christian institutions were diverting funds for the purpose of securing religious conversions in violation of a state law.
It was also claimed that funds were being used to support the Pathalgadi tribal movement that seeks greater autonomy from both the federal and state governments.
Christians had been targeted for their faith and faced violent attacks, false accusations and arbitrary actions by various government functionaries, said the memorandum to the federal home minister.
Indian Bishops' Conference secretary general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas has shared a copy of the memorandum and confirmed it was mailed to the federal home minister.
These institutions, working for the poor, receive foreign funding through banks in compliance with India's Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act and submit their audit reports annually to federal officials as well as filing income tax returns regularly, the memorandum said.
It was surprising that a criminal investigation had been launched even though the federal government had verified all the accounts and renewed permissions to receive funding, it added.
Bishop Mascarenhas said it was alarming that several non-governmental agencies receive foreign funding, but only Christians are being investigated.
"The government is unleashing violence against those who follow a different ideology, which is not good for our country," he told ucanews.com.
Christian leaders say the state government supports the ideology of Hindu groups working to make India a nation of Hindu hegemony.
Jharkhand has close to one million Christians, almost all of them tribal people, in a population of 32 million.
Church leaders believe that the government was angered over Christian leaders playing a crucial role in forcing withdrawal of an attempt to amend two state laws that protect tribal land.