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Indian laws put Christian missionaries on defensive

Proponents of religious freedom are criticizing Indian laws against forced conversion.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2007

Shimla, India

The walls of Lajja Devi's spartan house are plastered with Hindu images: blue-skinned Lord Krishna playing the flute; the warrior goddess Durga, brandishing a knife in each of her eight hands; barefoot, saffron-robed priests.

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But only weeks before, every picture in the house was Christian. Ms. Devi, who lives in Shimla, the capital of the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, was born a Hindu but willingly converted to Christianity five years ago. She returned to Hinduism in a "ghar vapasi" – literally, homecoming – ritual with more than 100 others in February.

"I am back home now; I am much happier," says Devi, beaming.

Her especially noisy, colorful ceremony was held to generate publicity for a new law passed in Himachal Pradesh earlier in February, banning forced religious conversions.

To others, however, Himachal Pradesh's anticonversion law and its "re-conversion" ceremonies give little cause for happiness. Rather, they are a troubling indication of a rising intolerance toward India's tiny Christian minority.

Hindu nationalists have long claimed that a rapacious band of "alleluia wallahs" is threatening India's Hindu identity. There may be some truth in these claims – there have been fears, even within India's Christian minority, that an expansionist evangelical movement is proslytizing too aggressively among India's poorest people.

But recently, these concerns have been used to justify a number of violent attacks on missionaries, and an increase in controversial anticonversion laws.

The law's title seems ironic, given its terms. Anyone wishing to switch religions must inform the district magistrate 30 days before or risk a fine. If a person converts another "by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means," they may be imprisoned for up to two years, fined, or both. The law is silent, however, on the subject of "reconversions."

Now, the multiplication of these laws is causing concerns beyond India. The US State Department's report on human rights practices, published in March, expressed concerns over "attempts by state and local governments to limit religious freedom" and the "promulgation of antireligious conversion laws."

The various iterations on the reconversion laws are only one part of India's abiding Hindu nationalism. On May 9, TV channels broadcast footage of two missionaries accused of forcibly converting Hindus being paraded through the streets of Kolhapur in Maharashtra by an angry mob. A week earlier, a pastor in Jaipur, Rajasthan, was brutally beaten on the same grounds.

Yet violence against Christian missionaries is more the exception than the rule. More commonly, anti-Christian antipathy in India is expressed through anticonversion laws. When Himachal Pradesh passed its Freedom of Religion Bill in February, it became the fifth state in India to do so.

A lack of evidence

In Shimla, a pretty town in the foothills of the Himalayas, where British colonialists kept their summer capital, most modern conversions take place in indigenous, home-based churches.

"We are a growing and powerful church," says the pastor of one home-based church who asks to remain anonymous. "We don't want any trouble. We aren't forcibly converting anyone; we're just telling them the truth."

Because his church has no conversion rite, this pastor says it is impossible to inform authorities of the intention to convert. But what really bothers him is the way "inducement" is defined in the law.

"Inducement," states the law, "shall include the offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind or grant of any benefit either pecuniary or otherwise."

"That could mean anything," protests the pastor. "In our culture it is traditional to give food. In Christianity, it is traditional to feed the poor."