Pastors Arrested for 'Fraudulent Conversion' in India

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Hindu extremists aid police who manhandle Christian leaders in Madhya Pradesh state.

by Nirmala Carvalho

MUMBAI, India, April 19 (Compass Direct) -- Police backed by Hindu extremists arrested Avinash Lal, an independent Pentecostal pastor from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh state, and six other Christian leaders last night (April 18) on charges on 'fraudulent conversion.'

They were released on bail at midnight, charged with conversion by allurement and illegal religious gatherings.

Shrada Vishwakarma, a Hindu, called police with the accusation against Pastor Lal. Madhya Pradesh police burst into the pastor’s home around 8:30 p.m., manhandling him and six other Christians leaders and confiscating their Bibles as evidence of “fraudulent conversions.”

When Pastor Lal tried telephoning for help, activists from the Bajrang Dal (youth wing of the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council) grabbed his mobile phone while he was talking to a Christian leader attending a pastors’ convention eight kilometers (nearly five miles) away.

“Police barged into our house, and in loud and threatening voices, they shouted abuses and began pounding the furniture with their batons,” Pastor Lal told Compass. “They accused me of ‘converting people to Christianity,’ they flung my Bible and tore up the Bibles of the others. They slapped me while another policeman grabbed [another Christian leader] by his ears, and a policeman grabbed another by the hair – all the while we could hear the loud ranting of the Bajrang Dal fundamentalists outside.”

The Christian leaders were confined at Barela police station, where Hindu extremists shouted slogans against them. Christians at the nearby convention rushed to the police station as a sign of solidarity with the Pastor Lal and the others.

The Christian leaders’ attorney, R.A. Robertson, said they were released at midnight on bail.

Sanjay Kumar, police inspector at Barela police station, told Compass that because Pastor Lal was under investigation for converting people through allurement, “It is our duty to investigate the matter and record his statements.”

‘Illegal’ Prayer Meetings

Indira Iyengar, president of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association and a member of the Madhya Pradesh Minority Commission, said that the Jabalpur collector had told her that Lal and the six others were also under investigation for illegal prayer meetings.

“He informed me that Pastor Avinash and the six others held prayer meetings in homes, which the administration should have been notified of, and that this had not been done,” Iyengar said. “Under the MP Freedom of Religion Bill, ‘Cottage meetings’ are not permissible, the collector explained.”

Iyengar said she would write to the chief minister and to the National Minorities Commission that “cottage meetings” are as much part of Christian services as church gatherings, and that there is no distinction in worship between the two.

“This form of discrimination between churches and domestic assemblies is another ploy of the [Hindu] fundamentalists and government to harass the Christian community,” she said. “This is another pretext by these fundamentalist elements to arrest Christians on charges of conversion.”

Dr. John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Council, said that if police wanted to arrest the pastor, it did not need Bajrang Dal support.

“Who is running the government in Madhya Pradesh – is it the Bajrang Dal?” Dayal said. “Under the Indian Penal Code, it is criminal on the part of the Bajrang Dal to break into houses.”

Dayal said criminal charges should be filed against the Bajrang Dal before police register a case against the pastor. “Holding prayers at home is not a crime, even under the ugly anti-conversion law,” he said.

According to the Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom Act of 1968, people promoting religion or organizing religious functions need to seek permission from the district collector.

Father Cedric Prakash, director of human rights center Prashant, told Compass that the police acts of intimidation and harassment were a gross violation of basic rights of Indian citizens.

“While the police have every right to investigate any activities of a person in a civilized way, they have no right to arrest anybody on fabricated or fictitious charges,” he said. “The police in connivance with the Hindu, right-wing government of Madhya Pradesh should stop this Fascist mentality and action and protect the freedoms of people. It is within [Lal’s] rights to preach his religion anywhere, even in the seclusion of his own home.”

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct