By Santosh Digal, Worthy News and BosNewsLife Asia Correspondent reporting from India
NEW DELHI, INDIA (Worthy News)-- Human rights officials on Saturday, January 22, welcomed a decision by India's top court to confirm the life sentence given to a Hindu who burned to death an Australian missionary and his two young sons outside a church in eastern India over a decade ago.
A trial court had sentenced Dara Singh to death but it was reduced to life in prison on appeal. His accomplice, Mahendra Hembram, was also sentenced to life imprisonment at Friday's court session.
Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan on the Supreme Court rejected a plea by state prosecutors to raise Dara Singh's punishment back to the death penalty, Singh's attorney, S.S. Mishra, explained to reporters.
The secretary-general of the influential advocacy group All India Christian Council (AICC), John Dayal, said he welcomed the decision. "Most Indian Christians oppose the death penalty both on moral and theological grounds, as much as we oppose abortion and taking away life at any stage," he told Worthy News and its news partner BosNewsLife. "Of course, as Christians, we want the state and central government to uphold the rule of law.”
Another AICC official, Joseph D’souza, said he was pleased that the Supreme Court had uphold an earlier verdict. "In dismissing Dara Singh’s petition for dropping of the case against him, the court clearly denounced the heinous hate crime perpetrated by communal forces.”
Yet, Babu Joseph, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said the verdict was "a grim reminder" of the killings in January, 1999, of Graham Staines and his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8.
Staines had been looking after leprosy patients in India's volitile Orissa state. A mob led by Singh set fire to a jeep in which the family had been sleeping outside a church in the tribal village of Manoharpur.
The missionary's widow, Gladys, said after the ruling she holds no bitterness towards the killers. "Because of forgiveness I hold no bitterness towards the persons who killed my family," the 59 year-old woman told the Press Trust of India news agency.
A series of attacks against missionaries and Christian institutions at the time were blamed on right-wing Hindus, who claimed missionaries tricked impoverished Hindus by force, money and superstition into converting faiths, a charge the Christian missionaries denied.
Trial observers said the Supreme Court court seemed to agree however with media allegations that attempts to "force" Hindus to embrace Christianity were behind the attack. “It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone’s belief by way of ‘use of force’, provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other," the court wrote.
Dayal criticized the court's remarks saying "We do not want any court to pre-judge the matter of conversions and violence. The real root cause of strife in which Staines lost his life with his two kids was a misunderstanding of conversion. We have seen communal violence not only against Christians, but also on Muslims and Sikhs since India’s Independence."
He added that inquiries by India's National Commission for Minorities and other advisory bodies have proven "repeatedly" there were no fraudulent or forceful conversions by Christians in India anywhere, anytime. He said that after analysing the Supreme Court's reference to changing religions, the AICC might ask the top court to revise its opinion at an appropriate time.
Dayal said the Supreme Court's comments on Hindu conversions may negatively impact trials in the troubled area of Kandhamal in Orissa where scores of people died in anti-Christian violence in recent years, as well as conversion court cases in other states.
Dayal told Worthy News that, "It is unfortunate that [radical Hindu forces known as] 'Hindutva'...look for an excuse to attack Christians and others because they believe that India is for Hindus only. This goes against India’s spirit of secularism.”
Hindus comprise more than 80 percent of India's 1 billion-plus population. Christians make up over 2 percent, according to official estimiates. (With additional reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).