Sunday, November 20, 2005

Pastor Charged with "Forced Conversion" in India

Feigning baptism, false convert lays trap in which Hindu extremists attack.
by Vijayesh Lal

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass) - Govind Verma, chief of a local chapter of the Bharatiya Janata Party, approached Pastor Masih Das Rai of Chattisgarh state last month saying he had had an encounter with God and wanted to become a Christian.

Just six months ago, Verma had threatened to harm Rai if he continued his pastoral work in Palari town in Raipur district. But Rai arranged for Verma to participate in a baptism ceremony on November 10, along with a few other villagers who had received Christ.

On the morning of the baptism, Verma told the group he would join them later in the day. Sources later discovered that Verma contacted the Dharma Sena ("Religious Army," a militant Hindu organization) and complained about Rai, disclosing the details of the planned baptism.

Members of the Dharma Sena then attacked Rai and 12 other Christians as they were worshiping during the ceremony. Leela Dhar Chandrakar, chief of the Dharma Sena in Chattisgarh, led the attack. Chandrakar has been implicated in other attacks against Christians. (See Compass Direct, "Christians Protest Church Attacks in Chattisgarh, India," September 20.)

The mob beat Rai and his companions and handed them over to the police, who interrogated the pastor before arresting him for "forced conversion" under the Freedom of Religion Act, and a section of the Indian Penal Code that bans deliberate insults about another person’s religious beliefs.

The believers who attended the ceremony said policemen and members of the Dharma Sena pressured them to give statements against Rai, who works for the local Christian organization Milap Mandali.

"The police have been uncooperative," Arun Pannalal of the Church of North India confirmed to Compass. "Eight of the Christians were forced to give statements against Pastor Rai. And when we as a delegation went to visit him at Palari [police station], we were not allowed to talk to him or see him privately."

Pannalal's delegation tried to file a counter-complaint with the police, but failed. "The police are just not entertaining a counter - complaint in this matter, even though Pastor Rai has been beaten up and still has the marks of the beatings on his body."

Pannalal pointed out that the attackers had verbally insulted the Christian faith, illegal under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Offenders may be imprisoned for up to three years and/or fined.

While Rai has been charged with this offense, his attackers have not.

Under the Freedom of Religion Act "forced conversion" charge, meanwhile, Rai could be imprisoned for up to one year and/or forced to pay a fine of 5,000 rupees ($109).

Akhilesh Edgar, the director of Milap Mandali, has also been implicated in the case, although at press time he had not been arrested.

When Rai appeared at district court on November 11-12, his application for bail was rejected on grounds that police had not yet handed over the necessary paperwork.

A second bail application hearing is set for Monday (November 21). In the meantime, Rai remains in custody.


Christian Escapes "Forced Conversion" Charge

Lawrence Rao, a Christian from Jabalpur city, Madhya Pradesh, narrowly escaped criminal charges on November 6 after Hindu extremists accused him of attempting to convert Jagdish Costa, a Hindu villager.

"About 15 people, along with a few policemen, stormed a prayer meeting in our home at about 1:15 p.m.," Rao told Compass. "As soon as the extremists entered the house, they started shouting, 'Who are the Jesus people who have come here for conversion?' Then they tried to attack us physically, but the police intervened and saved us."

The police took Rao, his wife and Costa to the police station. On the way there, the extremists continued to threaten and abuse them. "They were also trying to pressure Costa to say that we had forcibly entered his house to convert him," Rao said.

Costa categorically denied that he was forced to convert to Christianity, and told the police he had joined the prayer meetings after Rao successfully prayed for the healing of his 10-year-old son.

The police released Rao, his wife and Costa after holding them at the station for about six hours. They later called for Rao at 3.30 a.m. and asked him to come to the police station. A local Christian who requested anonymity said about 200 members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, had surrounded the police station that night, demanding Rao's arrest.

Rao and Costa were asked to give their respective statements at the police station and were released without charge at 4 p.m.

Arun Mishra, chief superintendent of police of Gorakhpur district, told Compass that Rao was innocent.

Rao, a retired government officer and member of the local Jeevan Jyoti church, was shocked at these events. "I have never been opposed like this," he said later. "Many people believe in prayers and ask us to pray for them."

Extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal had earlier attacked a prayer meeting organized by the Jeevan Jyoti Church in Dhanora village on February 23, seriously injuring a 65-year-old Christian convert. (See Compass Direct, "Hindus in India Attack Church While Police Take 'Lunch Break,'" March 14.)