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Church People Unhappy As Another State Passes An Anti-Conversion Bill


January 09 2007

Church people say they are concerned about an anti-conversion bill passed recently in Himachal Pradesh, a northern Indian state governed by the Congress party.

The state assembly passed the bill Dec. 30 during a four-day winter session. However, the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill still requires the state governor´s signature before it can be enacted as a law.

"We are intrigued as to why the state government passed the bill," Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India, told UCA News on Jan. 8.

The Congress party, which leads the federal government, "is known for its secular credentials," he said, expressing concern that the Himachal Pradesh government was "dragged" into passing such a bill by pro-Hindu ideologues.

The law forbids religious conversion by fraudulent means. Anyone found guilty of forcing another person to change religion can be punished with a two-year jail term, a fine of up to 25,000 rupees (US$560) or both.

The law also stipulates that a person intending to change her or his religion should inform the government 30 days in advance. State Home Secretary Vijay Kumar was quoted in the media as saying that failure to do is punishable by a fine of up to 1,000 rupees.

Anti-conversion laws exist in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Tamil Nadu passed and repealed such a law in 2004. An anti-conversion bill passed by the Rajasthan assembly has yet to become law because the state governor returned it without signing it.

Christian leaders in India have steadfastly opposed such legislation, maintaining that the vague terms used in them, such as "force," "inducement" and "fraud," could be applied to Christian services in education, social work and health care. They fear such laws would be used to arrest and harass missioners working in the remote villages.

John Dayal, a lay Christian leader and member of the federal National Integration Council, which advises the government on inter-community affairs, called the new Himachal Pradesh bill a "cruel joke." He told UCA News Jan. 8 that the state has barely 10,000 Christians among its 6 million people and wondered why the assembly would actually pass such a bill.

Dayal, who also is president of the All India Catholic Union, said Christian leaders are trying to get the government, both at the state and federal level, to withdraw the bill. He said he hoped that, as in Rajasthan, the governor of Himachal Pradesh would return the bill to the assembly without signing it.

Christians made several representations to Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh while the bill was under discussion, asking him not to proceed with it, Dayal recalled. He said they also wrote to Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader and chairperson of the federal alliance, who replied that her government and her party were opposed to the passing of such laws.

According to Dayal, Singh betrayed the trust of the Christian community by passing the bill quickly within a four-day assembly session, despite earlier assurances that this would not happen.

Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Simla and Chandigarh, whose diocese covers the entire state, was not available for comment. Father Thomas Anjanickal, vicar general, the highest official in a diocese after the bishop, told UCA News he was not aware of the bill´s passage.