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Church Happy As Conversion Bill Threatens Jharkhand State´s Coalition Government

Updated: August 29, 2006 05:00 PM GMT
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The Church in Jharkhand is happy that a proposed anti-conversion law has run into a hurdle in the eastern Indian state.

A coalition led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people´s party) rules the state, which has a sizable tribal Christian population.

The BJP wants to introduce a bill to regulate religious conversions in Jharkhand, as it has done in four other states it rules. But the plan might backfire on the government, since a coalition partner not only refuses to support the bill but also threatens to withdraw support for the coalition.

"There´s no question of supporting any BJP move to bring the anti-conversion bill," asserts Jaleshwar Mahto, who heads Janata Dal United (JDU, people´s front united) in Jharkhand. Speaking with UCA News Aug. 28, Mahto said his party´s national leadership decided the previous day to oppose the BJP plan to introduce an anti-conversion law in the state. "We would abide by the party high command´s decision to the hilt," he added.

Mahto said his party is secular but lost this image after it allied itself with the BJP at the national level. The party would distance itself from the BJP to re-establish its secular credentials, he asserted.

State Welfare Minister Ramesh Singh Munda, another JDU leader, remarked that the national party leadership has "solved our problem."

He told UCA News that BJP leaders have pressured the Jharkhand coalition to introduce the anti-conversion bill. "The day BJP tries to bring its controversial anti-conversion bill in the assembly, the coalition will collapse," he warned.

The JDU decision was brought up at a Church-organized interreligious seminar in the state capital of Ranchi, 1,160 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.

Reverend Nirdhosh Lakra told the Aug. 28 seminar that the JDU move is "good news for us." The Protestant leader, ministerial secretary of North-West Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church, recalled that Hindu fundamentalist groups threatened to introduce the anti-conversion law after Rajnath Singh became the BJP president a year ago.

Singh has demanded enactment of stringent anti-conversion laws during his visits to the BJP-ruled states after he took over the party.

Gossner Bishop P.D.S. Tirkey commended the JDU for its decision. He said BJP leaders often have accused Christian missioners of converting tribal people through force, fraud and allurement. "Their allegations are baseless (and they) know it," the Lutheran prelate told UCA News.

Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo of Ranchi told UCA News on Aug. 28 that he is convinced no anti-conversion law would be passed in Jharkhand, because the JDU parliamentarians and five independents in the state legislative assembly would oppose such a bill. The JDU has "taken a good and timely step," added the cardinal, who heads the Catholic Church in India.

In the 82-member state assembly, the BJP-led coalition has 43 supporters, including eight JDU members.

Cardinal Toppo said what worries him in Jharkhand is not the anti-conversion law but rather "corruption" and the fact that "nothing is happening" about it.

The Catholic Church is not involved in fraudulent conversion, he asserted. "Those blaming the Church are playing politics with religious issues."

On the other hand, he said Hindu fundamentalists try to impose their religion on tribal people through "reconversion" programs called "ghar vapasi" (homecoming). The cardinal also said the Church is willing to talk to its detractors instead of clashing over the conversion issue.

Some members of other religions also have commended the JDU move.

Muslim leader Khurshid Hasan Rumi told UCA News the JDU "has done a very good job to maintain secularism in Jharkhand." The Indian Constitution, he said, "has given freedom to each and every citizen to adopt and practice religion of his or her own choice." Laws that refuse people such a choice violate the constitution, he asserted.

Asked about the JDU move, Jharkhand Chief Minister Arjun Munda told reporters on Aug. 28 that his BJP party would talk about the issue "when the time comes." Regarding the anti-conversion law, he said he would talk to his alliance members before introducing the bill in the state assembly.


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