Thursday, May 25, 2006

Christians In Madhya Pradesh Appeal For Security, Acknowledge Need For Unity

May 24, 2006
JABALPUR, India (UCAN) -- Church leaders in a central Indian state say Christians need greater unity among themselves to safeguard their community from violence.

Unless various denominations shed their differences and come together, the community will not be able to resist attacks against it, according to Catholic Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur, a diocese in Madhya Pradesh state.

The prelate spoke with UCA News several days after he led a delegation to meet Governor Balram Jhakhar and seek protection for Christians and their institutions. The Madhya Pradesh governor was visiting Jabalpur, site of the state's High Court, 815 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.

During the May 6 meeting, the Christian delegates presented the governor a memorandum asking for withdrawal of what they say are false charges against members of their community.

The memorandum also demanded "a free and fair probe" into cases of alleged religious conversion registered against Christians. The delegation called for the probe to be conducted either by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a federal agency, or by a Supreme Court judge.

Bishop Almeida noted that the state has experienced a spurt of violent attacks on Christians and Christian institutions, especially since the beginning of this year. Jabalpur district alone has had 13 incidents of anti-Christian violence this year.

The bishop stressed the need for greater ecumenical unity but acknowledged that "disciplining different (denominations) is a big challenge."

Church of North India (CNI) Bishop Prem Chand Singh of Jabalpur, another member of the delegation, also stressed interdenominational dialogue to address the current crises facing the Church.

Accusing the police of being biased, the Protestant prelate alleged that police register false cases of conversion against Christians when they go to file complaints against their attackers. "There should be more unity among different denominations to address such issues jointly," he added.

Madhya Pradesh is one of five Indian states in which religious conversion is regulated by law, with moves underway in two more states to do the same. Church leaders here say the government increasingly uses the police to muzzle Christians, who form less than 1 percent of the 60 million population.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people's party) now rules Madhya Pradesh. Many people consider it the political arm of groups trying to turn India from a secular country into a Hindu nation.

The Indian Constitution allows people to profess, practice and propagate the religion of their choice, but Hindu extremists depict Christianity and Islam as imported religions that do not respect Indian culture and tradition. They strongly oppose religious conversion, claiming it would endanger the country's unity because Christians owe their allegiance to an outside authority.

Bishop Almeida said the delegation was happy with its meeting with the governor. He quoted the governor as saying, "Don't worry bishop, everything will be done, and go in peace."

Reverend Cyril Cornelius, a Methodist delegate, told UCA News the governor immediately instructed a senior police official present to probe the charges and report back. He said the governor was furious about the way the police handled the situation and directed officials not to register any cases of conversion against Christians without proper investigation.

Cornelius said he suspects the government orchestrated these attacks as a prelude toward making the existing anti-conversion law more stringent. A person charged under the existing law is able to arrange bail from the police station, but Cornelius predicted the government would try to amend the law so that a person charged with conversion would be jailed immediately.

Later, the Christian leaders formed a coordination committee with Bishop Almeida as president to foster more cooperation among various denominations.

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