Indian Hindu devotees pay respects at Kedarnath Temple in northern Uttarakhand state. (Photo by Shammi Mehra/AFP)
Christian leaders have reacted cautiously to the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand passing a law criminalizing religious conversions.
The state's government — led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party — passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Bill on March 20. State governor Krishna Kant Paul signed it on April 18.
Darshan Singh Rawat, a senior state official, told ucanews.com May 2 the bill is now in the process of being published in a gazette which will permit it to be enforced.
The new law stipulates a two-year jail term for a forced religious conversion of a minor, a woman or a person belonging to the socially disadvantaged Dalit people or indigenous groups.
As per similar laws in other states, it requires a person officiating an act of conversion to inform state officials a month ahead of the ceremony. It also criminalizes an act of conversion using fraud, force or allurement with jail terms and fines.
Uttarakhand has become the seventh state to have such a law. The other states are Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.
The new law additionally states that any marriage formalized for the sole purpose of conversion by the man of one religion with the woman of another religion may be declared null and void by the family court.
Bishop Ignatius D'Souza of Bareilly, which covers part of Uttarakhand, told ucanews.com that church officials are aware of the new law but believed it wouldn't adversely affect their mission work.
"We have been doing charitable work and preaching ministry among the people for decades and we have never had any serious problems," Bishop D'Souza told ucanews.com.
"The new law is against using force or allurement for conversions, but no such conversion exists in the Catholic Church.
"We are only interested in enlightening people to the teachings of Jesus Christ so that they can lead a better life and we are not interested in religious conversion."
But Bishop Francis Kalist of Meerut, which also covers part of Uttarakhand, said he was unable to predict the impact of the law. "We do not yet know how it will be implemented," he said.
Christian leaders say anti-conversion laws began to appear two decades after India's independence and they were aimed at checking the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam. Hindu activists said such conversions result in social divisions.
Despite the laws, no Christian has so far been convicted of conversion but in the last decade several cases have been filed. Many of these cases arose in northern Indian villages where Hindu groups interpreted Christian mission work in education and health care as fraudulent or being carried out with the ultimate goal of conversion.
Bishop Kalist said Christians in Uttarakhand have "not experienced any serious hostilities from any group so far."
The state has 10 million people, mostly Hindus. Christians are less than one percent of the population but Muslims form 14 percent.