By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy Nees
(Worthy News) - Christians in India’s southern state of Karnataka anticipated a sad Christmas as details emerged of a perceived “draconian” law proposal against religious conversions.
The Hindu-led government tabled the draft anti-conversion legislation despite protests includes jail terms of up to 10 years for anyone found guilty of converting others by force.
“Fraudulent methods” or marriage aimed at conversion are also forbidden.
Besides fines and possibly imprisonment, the law could also mean denying government benefits to those who convert from one religion to another.
The law was expected to impact especially millions of impoverished Dalits, also known as “untouchables,” as they are the ‘lowest caste’ in the ancient system of Hinduism.
Many Dalits have converted to faith in Christ as they escape the strict Hindu hierarchy, according to mission groups and church leaders.
However, soon everyone who wishes to convert will be required to notify local officials two months before - and officials will investigate the reasons before “allowing” it to happen.
Evangelical Christians say converting to Christ is not a religious event but a personal decision that bureaucrats can’t stop.
However, Christian leaders worry that the new bill will encourage Hindu hardliners to target further the Christian community in India, a mainly Hindu nation.
They view the legislation in Karnataka as part of an increasingly polarising environment under India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi's and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Under the BJP, which is in charge of Karnataka, tensions already rose, noted Pastor Somu Avaradhi. He got shocked when he recently entered his church in Hubballi city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
"People were sitting inside, singing Hindu religious songs and shouting slogans," he said when recalling the October incident.
The pastor told Britain’s BBC network that he called the police, but when they arrived, the protesters accused him of abusing and forcing a Hindu man to convert to Christianity.
He was detained - under charges of "outraging the religious feelings of any class" - and spent 12 days in prison before he was released on bail.
This isn't an isolated incident. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) listed 39 threats or violence against Christians from January to November this year in Karnataka.
Christian pastors and priests in Karnataka say they are fearful for the future. Initially, the attacks were limited to a few pockets in the state, but now 21 out of 31 districts have reported one violent incident.
These alleged attacks on churches by right-wing Hindu groups included instances where they physically prevented Christians from holding church services, Worthy News learned.
Francis D'Souza, a priest at a local church in the town of Belagavi, confirmed last week that a man with a sword tried to attack him after security camera footage emerged.
Though police stepped up security, “that fear is still there in me," he said.
The Reverend Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of EFI, which represents 65,000 churches in India, compared the situation in Karnataka with what happened in Uttar Pradesh, where a similar law was introduced.
"You push the community, you take them down, you level false allegations of conversion and then bring in a law which is unconstitutional," he said in published remarks.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, also governed by the BJP, the anti-conversion law sought to target so-called "love jihad," officials said.
Authorities claimed Muslim men lure Hindu women into converting by proposing marriage. Critics have it a right-wing Hindu conspiracy. State police have reportedly registered more than 100 cases of alleged forcible conversion.
Christians fear the legislation mainly targets them amid concerns among authorities about the spread of Christianity among Dalits and other Hindus.
These tensions have often translated into violence on the ground.
Christians still recall 1999 attacks on Christian institutions in the eastern state of Orissa (also known as Odisha). They were followed by the horrific murders of an Australian missionary and his two young sons as they slept in a jeep.
Yet, Karnataka’s state chief minister Basvaraj Bommai says only those trying to lure people into converting to a different religion need to fear the law.
But missionaries and devoted Christian leaders fear this law will impact their Biblical calling to spread the Gospel or even to gather for worship with fellow believers.
Christians also questioned the need for an anti-conversion law, saying India's constitution gives the right to everyone to "propagate” faith or religion.
But ahead of Christmas, there was no indication that Hindu government leaders or a majority of legislators had second thoughts about Karnataka’s feared anti-conversion legislation.