India's Christians see dangers in Karnataka survey, anti-conversion push

St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, mother church of the Archdiocese of Bangalore St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, mother church of the Archdiocese of Bangalore. | Saad Faruque via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0).

A Catholic archbishop in India’s Karnataka state has again called on the state government to withdraw its orders to survey Christian missionaries, their places of worship, and other Christian institutions. The survey comes amid a proposal to pass “anti-conversion” laws, which Christians and others say are abused by extremists.

“The entire Christian community in Karnataka opposes the proposal in one voice and questions the need for such an exercise when sufficient laws and court directives are in place to monitor any aberration of the existing laws,” Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore said Oct. 25.

The government of Karnataka is deliberating whether to pass an anti-conversion law similar to that of eight other Indian states. Such an anti-conversion law would be “a tool for fringe elements to take law into their own hands” and foment civil unrest, he warned.

He challenged critics of religious conversion to prove their claims of coercion or other misconduct.

“Thousands of patients, irrespective of caste, creed, and color, receive the best medical attention from our hospitals and care centers,” the archbishop said, adding that myriad students have graduated from Christian schools. He asked the government to prove “whether even one of them has ever been influenced, compelled or coerced to change his or her religion.”

There are about 400,000 Catholics in the Bangalore archdiocese. There are about 1.1 million Christians in all of Karnataka, according to the 2011 census. Yet Christians are less than 2% of the state’s total population of some 61 million. Hindus make up 84% of the state’s people, while about 13% are Muslim.

If there really were many conversions, the archbishop said, Christian numbers would have increased beyond 1.87% of the population recorded in the last census. Even if there are abuses, he said, “random and sporadic incidents should not be referred to (put) the entire Christian community in bad light.”

The state government decided to conduct the survey Oct. 13 after a Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker claimed that conversions were widespread. He said that his mother had converted to Christianity, according to UCA News. The lawmaker has accused Christians of making converts through fear, bribery, and the superstitious use of healing prayers.

Machado objected that the survey targets only Christians.

He appealed to Basavaraj Bommai, the chief minister of Karnataka and a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to withdraw the survey and the proposed anti-conversion bill. This would “thereby preserve and contribute to the communal peace, tranquility and brotherhood, which is the hallmark of any progressive state.”

Article 25 of India’s constitution guarantees “the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.” Christians comprise 2.3% of India’s population, according to the 2011 census, making Christianity the third-largest religion after Hinduism (79.8%) and Islam (14.2%).

Foes of the Karnataka proposals found support from as far away as northeast India.

“We stand with the Christians of Karnataka. Their concerns are our concerns,” Archbishop John Moolachira of Guwahati told the Indian news website EastMojo. “The anti-conversion bill which the state proposes is discriminatory against Christians and even against Hindus as the state believes that people will sell their souls for alleged allurements.”

The archbishop is president of the North East India Regional Bishops’ Council, a Catholic body of more than a dozen bishops. His Guwahati archdiocese is based in the largest city of the state of Assam, where Catholics are a small minority.

“We do not object to the government’s move to find the details of institutions of different religions but let it be of every religion and not of Christians alone,” Moolachira said. “If after mature thought, if one plans to change his religion, let him have that freedom. Does not the Constitution allow that?”

Eight of India’s 29 states have passed anti-conversion laws, aimed at preventing conversions from Hinduism to minority religions by “force” or “inducement.” These laws and related accusations have drawn criticism from India’s religious minorities and from an official U.S advisory body.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 annual report discusses matters of concern in India, including concerns about the anti-conversion laws. These laws, the report said, aim “to protect the dominant religion from perceived threats from religious minorities.”

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“These anti-conversion laws are too often the basis for false accusations, harassment, and violence against non-Hindus that occur with impunity,” said the report. Last year, mob violence inspired by “false accusations of forced conversions” attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious services.

In many cases, the commission said, officials failed to prevent abuses and ignored or declined to investigate perpetrators of attacks.

The U.S. religious freedom commission is a bipartisan U.S. government commission that monitors religious freedom issues abroad. It makes policy recommendations to the U.S. President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

Its 2021 report recommended that India and 13 other countries be designated a “country of particular concern,” a designation which allows expanded policy options to the U.S. State Department, including sanctions.

The Karnataka actions drew other objections from northeast India.

“Nobody can forcefully convert anyone,” Taw Tebin, president of the Arunachal Pradesh Catholic Association, told EastMojo. “It is not the Christians doing ‘forcible conversion.’ It is the government that is doing the forcible conversion by imposing something that is not tenable to the Constitution and detrimental to the secular fabrics of our country.”

The United Christian Forum of North East India has also rejected the bill. Its spokesperson, Allen Brooks, said, “What is happening in the country challenges the whole Constitution. I am Indian not because of my religion, but because of my birth and my Constitution. What is happening in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh these days is a way to dilute that constitutional the rights of everyone in the country.”

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Brooks linked the proposal to the upcoming elections saying, “Why such issues are raked up before every crucial election? This is not because of the forcible conversion but because elections are around the corner.”

“Such issues would divide the people on religious lines and they forget the real issues affecting the country,” he said. These election politics come “at the cost of hurting the religious sentiment of the peace-loving Christian community in the country.”

Sister Euginia Laloo, social communications director of the Salesian Sisters in Meghalaya state, was also critical.

“This is sad that Christians, who make a significant contribution to nation-building with education and health care services, are constantly under attack from government and fringe groups across the country,” said Laloo, who worried the action would encourage extremism.

“Such moves will win you votes, but at what cost?” she asked.

Machado had previously worried that the survey would lead to priests, religious sisters, and church workers being unfairly targeted.

“In fact, in the background of the conversion bogey and anti-religious feelings that are being whipped up, it is dangerous to make such surveys,” he said Oct. 15. He urged the government not to give in to “the pressures from fundamentalist groups, who wish to indulge in disturbing the peace, harmony, and peaceful co-existence.”

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