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Church Welcomes Repeal Of Controversial Conversion Law In Tamil Nadu

Updated: May 20, 2004 05:00 PM GMT
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Church leaders have welcomed a southern Indian state´s repeal of a law that restricted religious conversion.

On May 18 Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha, whose party suffered a drubbing at the recent parliamentary elections, revoked a series of controversial moves she made during the past two years.

They included the anti-conversion law that many believe was aimed at Christians.

Jayalalitha´s regional political outfit runs the state government but could not win any of the state´s 39 seats in the federal parliament. The election ended May 10 and results were announced three days later. A state assembly election is not due for two years.

Besides the law on conversion, Jayalalitha withdrew some court cases against media and government workers and her political rivals. Her opponents had highlighted these during the election campaign as "anti-people" moves.

According to Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India (CBCI), "The Church welcomes the move to revoke the anti-conversion law."

The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill 2002 was passed in late 2002 amid protests. Its maximum penalties of four years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$2,080) are for converting a "dalit" (former untouchable), tribal, woman or child through force or allurement.

The law also required priests to inform district officials about each convert to whom they give religious initiation. Failure to comply with this is punishable by one year in prison.

Jayalalitha stated May 18 that she ordered the law "repealed at once" to "clear any misconception on account of this law."

CBCI deputy secretary general Father Donald De Souza told UCA News, "It is happy news for the Church that such a draconian law has been revoked." Jayalalitha´s attempts show she has sensed "people were unhappy with such anti-minority laws, and finally she listened to the people," he said.

Father Joseph agreed the repeal shows popular sentiments against the act were not taken into consideration. He asserted the law "seriously undermined" minorities´ rights and privileges guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, which establishes practice and propagation of one´s religion as a fundamental right.

"Clearly, the electoral response in the state has forced her (Jayalalitha) to reconsider such laws. It also shows the government´s openness to honor the various provisions of the Constitution meant for the people," Father Joseph added.

Some lay leaders told UCA News Jayalalitha´s loss in the parliamentary elections was due partly to her alliance with the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people´s party).

Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry Laity Council president S. John Michael told UCA News that people "gave a clear mandate to secular parties" in the election. "Majority Hindus rejected religious fundamentalist forces. They wanted peace and brotherhood to prevail in the country," he said.

Bernadette Pitchai, the first lay woman theologian in Tamil Nadu, said she had worked with members of the women´s commission of the regional bishops´ council to systematically motivate Catholics "to oust the corrupt and anti-minority government." Pitchai is secretary of the commission.

According to lay leader Kulandairaj of Sivagangai diocese, in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha dropped the controversial measures in a bid to placate voters so she can retain power when the state goes to the polls in 2006. "These withdrawals are a political gimmick -- once she comes to power she will stick to her old agenda," he said.


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