Christians protest in New Delhi in 2014 against the burning of a church in the capital. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
Church leaders and activists in India are celebrating the acquittal of eight Christians who had been falsely accused of kidnapping 60 children for the purpose of converting them to Christianity.
The six men and two women were freed on Feb. 18 by the criminal court in Ratlam in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
“Justice has finally been done,” said Tehmina Arora, director of the legal team of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian forum that took up the case.
“But we must not forget the toll that such false cases take on families. No one should be targeted for their faith. The anti-conversion laws are tools to harass and target Christians and should be repealed since they restrict the freedom of religion guaranteed under the constitution of India.”
The case dates back to May 2017 when 10 Christians were arrested in two separate incidents for the alleged illegal religious conversion of tribal children in Madhya Pradesh.
The two Christians booked in the second case in Indore are also being defended by ADF lawyers and are hopeful of being similarly acquitted.
In the first case, eight Christians were charged under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act.
The accused were arrested after 60 children were detained at Ratlam railway station on May 21, 2017. It was alleged that the Christians were taking the children for conversion in Nagpur, a prominent city in neighboring Maharashtra state.
Police said the accused maintained that the children were Christians on their way to Nagpur to attend a summer camp. Parents of the children later confirmed that they were Christians.
In a separate incident on May 22, two Christian men from Indore were arrested on charges of attempting to convert 11 children to their religion.
The children and the accused, who were on their way to the Nagpur summer camp, belong to a neo-Pentecostal group named Shalom.
“Finally, the truth has come and we welcome the verdict because we knew that they are innocent. The Church does not promote or propagate religious conversion,” Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal told UCA News.
“It is very unfortunate that from time to time some fanatic groups harass poor people, especially Dalits and tribals, in the name of religious conversion, but it is unacceptable in a democratic country like India.
“The Church and its institutions should be very alert and careful in the state because it is nothing new. Our people are attacked even when they are carol singing, which the fanatic groups consider as religious conversion.”
Madhya Pradesh is one of the few states in India with a tough anti-conversion law. According to the law, it is mandatory for a person to obtain prior permission from the state government before converting to another religion.
Christians make up 0.3 percent of some 73 million people in Madhya Pradesh.