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LOW-CASTE CONVERTS MADE SCAPEGOATS AS BILL AGAINST CONVERSION STALLS

Updated: February 09, 1997 05:00 PM GMT
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Attacks against low-caste converts to Christianity and conspiracy claims by pro-Hindu groups in Maharashtra, western India, may aim at getting a stalled anti-conversion bill passed in the state legislature.

Mumbai, capital of the state governed by a pro-Hindu coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people´s party)) and Shiv Sena (SS, army of Shiva) has witnessed several attacks on Christians recently.

BJP activists attacked a low-caste convert Jan. 15, allegedly in a dispute over sharing water in Dharavi, which has been dubbed Asia´s largest slum.

In retaliation, Christians attacked some Hindus, which prompted BJP activists to rally through the streets demanding the Christians´ arrest and a law against conversion.

"The real issue is hatred toward Christian teachings and business rivalry," said P.K. Thyagaraj, who sustained head injuries when BJP activists attacked a born-again Christian prayer meeting last December.

According to Pentecostal Pastor Vijayaraj, there are 30,000 Pentecostalists in Mumbai and they increasingly face threats from Hindu fanatics.

The Pentecostal mission is active in Dharavi, where most migrants from the southern state of Tamil Nadu live in ghettos.

Nagaraj Krishna, a BJP activist from the area, told UCA News that "large scale conversions" take place in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and that some 200 low-caste members became Christians on Jan. 1 in the suburb of Malad.

"Funds are flowing into India to promote conversion and for printing literature on Jesus Christ," he alleged.

BJP Dharavi unit secretary Aiya Durai said "proliferation" of Bible teaching in slums has raised Pentecostal membership from two to 48 in a few years.

But Shakuntala Joseph, a convert, told UCA News that she was not enticed with money or pressured to become a Pentecostal, and added that she "found a lot of peace" afterwards.

Christianity has also divided some families in the slums, charged Muthuraj, a BJP activist and Hindu whose mother and sister have joined a Pentecostal group.

Church of North India Bishop S.B. Joshua of Bombay points out that Pentecostal leaders are self appointed ministers with no sanction from any mainline Church.

Hindu activists also allege that the city´s Christian schools are increasingly used to propagate Christianity and convert Hindus. Some Hindus attacked a Catholic convent school Jan. 2, accusing a teacher of luring a Hindu former student to Christianity.

However, Father Denis Pereira, secretary of Bombay Catholic archdiocesan schools, dismissed the allegations as a Hindu activists´ "ploy" to expedite a bill against conversion pending in the state legislative assembly.

The bill, Maharashtra Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam (Maharashtra freedom of religion act) was introduced in 1994, but got postponed because of some "technical" problems.

BJP legislator Mangal Prabhat Lodha introduced it to make "coercive" conversion a cognizable offense and ban "gratification in cash, kind or grant of material benefit."

The bill interprets "threat of divine displeasure" or "social excommunication" as force in conversions and punishable by a year or more of imprisonment.

END

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