.- Christians are concerned about an anti-conversion bill that was passed in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill forbids religious conversion by fraudulent means. Anyone found guilty of forcing another person to change religion can be punished with a two-year jail term, a fine of up to 25,000 rupees (US$560) or both, reported UCA News.
The law also stipulates that a person intending to change her or his religion should inform the government 30 days in advance. State Home Secretary Vijay Kumar was quoted in the media as saying that failure to do is punishable by a fine of up to 1,000 rupees.
Anti-conversion laws exist in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Tamil Nadu passed and repealed such a law in 2004.
The state assembly, governed by the Congress party, passed the bill Dec. 30 during a four-day winter session. However, still requires the state governor's signature before it can be enacted as a law.
Christian leaders in India have steadfastly opposed such legislation, maintaining that the vague terms used in them, such as "force," "inducement" and "fraud," could be applied to Christian services in education, social work and health care. They fear such laws would be used to arrest and harass missioners working in remote villages, reported UCA News.
John Dayal, a lay Christian leader and member of the federal National Integration Council, told UCA News Jan. 8 that the state has barely 10,000 Christians among its 6 million people and wondered why the assembly would actually pass such a bill.
Dayal, who also is president of the All India Catholic Union, said Christian leaders are trying to urge the state and federal governments to withdraw the bill.
Christians made several appeals to Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh while the bill was under discussion, asking him not to proceed with it. They also wrote to Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader and chairperson of the federal alliance, who replied that her government and her party were opposed to such laws, reported Dayal.
Dayal says Singh betrayed the trust of the Christian community by passing the bill quickly within a four-day session, despite earlier assurances that this would not happen.