Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Indian Catholic bishop decries harassment of Christians


JABALPUR, India (UCAN) – A Catholic bishop in a central Indian state has accused police of "unnecessarily" harassing Christians.

Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur told UCA News April 8 that the Madhya Pradesh state government should provide "adequate protection" to Christians against attacks from right-wing Hindu groups. He said the attacks have increased in recent months.

On April 7, the police registered cases against seven Christians, including four women, for allegedly violating a law on conversion. It was the second such incident in a week in the Madhya Pradesh town of Jabalpur, 815 kilometers (about 505 miles) southeast of New Delhi.

Eyewitness Nidhin Sahai told UCA News that police, accompanied by members of a Hindu group, raided the house of a couple. They claimed hat a local resident had complained about conversions being carried out in the couple's house.

Sahai said the Hindu activists manhandled Christians as the police watched. The police then took seven Christians to the police station, he added.

None of the seven people were available for comment when UCA News contacted them April 8.

Madhya Pradesh and several other states in India have laws regulating religious conversion. The laws make it a punishable offense for anyone to officiate a conversion without informing district officials. They also forbid use of force or allurement aimed at conversion.

Christian leaders in Madhya Pradesh say Hindu extremists misuse provisions of the law to target Church members and institutions. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party) now rules the state. It is widely seen as the political arm of groups striving to make India a Hindu theocratic nation.

A delegation of Christian leaders met top police officials in Jabalpur on April 8 to seek protection for their people from what they say are planned attacks. Basant Daniel, a member of the delegation, noted that Christian houses are often raided when Christian families are having their evening prayers. Generally, every Christian family holds prayers before going to bed, he explained. However, the raiders say the prayers are conversion activities.

Bishop Almeida says Christians do not oppose actual violators of the law being punished but feel they are being "unnecessarily harassed."

A member of the state minority commission, Indira Iyengar, says Madhya Pradesh has reported 20 cases of atrocities against religious minority groups in the first quarter of this year. She accused the state government of protecting groups that target minority communities.

Two days before the raid on the couple's house, police registered cases against the manager and two teachers of the Christian Higher Secondary School in Jabalpur.

Police Superintendent D. Shreenivasa Rao, in charge of the Jabalpur area, confirmed both cases. He told UCA News that the seven who were taken to the police station from the couple's house were released the same night. He said they were charged under the bailable section of the conversion law.

Referring to the April 5 incident, Rao said the three Christians face charges of attempting to forcibly convert Ramkant Mishra, a Hindu teacher at the school. Mishra accused the three of assaulting him in the school when he refused to yield to their pressure to convert.

However, Rao added that the police have not arrested anyone so far as they are verifying the credibility of the complaint.

School principal Rakesh Barnes told UCA News Mishra was a "constant nuisance maker" who would allege that he was being targeted because of his religion whenever he was reprimanded for his misdeeds.

The principal said only five of the 16 teachers in the school are Christians, while the rest are Hindus. He counts only about 50 Christian children among the school's 400 students. He denied any conversion activity in the school.

Earlier, on March 17, Hindu extremists attacked 16 people gathered inside the house of a Christian in Jabalpur. They also burned copies of the Bible and ransacked the house.

The police registered cases against the house owner and his wife for violating the conversion law. Another case was registered against the assailants for ransacking the couple's house.

UCANews (www.ucanews.com)