A Catholic priest who was arrested by Indian authorities for violating “anti-conversion” laws was released from jail on Dec. 22 after being detained for nearly three months amid increasing persecution of Christians in the majority-Hindu state of Uttar Pradesh.

Father Babu Francis, a senior priest from Allahabad in northern Uttar Pradesh, was detained by the police on Oct. 1 after he sought information on the arrest and detention of a member of his staff. Francis also serves as director of the Diocesan Development and Welfare Society (DDWS).

“This is a Christmas gift to us. Our joy has no words to express,” Bishop Louis Mascarenhas of Allahabad told CNA as he greeted Francis at the gate of Naini jail in Prayagraj district with a bouquet of flowers.

Eleven out of India’s 28 states have passed laws to criminalize forced conversions but which, in practice, have been used to prevent the practice of the Christian faith. According to UCA News, 398 Christians have been arrested in Uttar Pradesh since the law was passed there three years ago.

The Diocese of Allahabad in a statement detailed the sequence of events that led to the priest’s arrest. According to the diocese, the police were trying to locate a Christian pastor named Susai Raj, who allegedly violated “conversion laws” by conducting prayers inside a house. Raj is the brother of an employee of Francis. 

When the police could not find Raj, they arrested two of his brothers, his son-in-law, and the Catholic priest and brought them to the police station. All of them were charged with conversion and “attempt to murder.”’

“This incident shows the ugly reality behind many of the conversion cases. Though Father Francis has been released, but there are dozens of innocent Christians languishing in jail under such dubious charges. One more pastor has been arrested in Uttar Pradesh today,” A C Michael, coordinator of the United Christian Forum (UCF), told CNA.

“Despite being a secular democracy, the sad reality is that harassment of Christians is becoming endemic with at least two incidents of atrocities being reported daily in 2023,” pointed out Michael, a Catholic.

UCF, the ecumenical forum that monitors anti-Christian violence in the country, recorded 687 incidents of violence against Christians in the first 11 months of 2023. 

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“Our country has been witnessing a sharp increase in targeted violence against Christians since 2014,” Michael remarked.

While only 147 incidents of violence against Christians were reported in 2014 — when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took office — Michael pointed out that “incidents have steadily spiraled since then” with 177 in 2015, 208 in 2016, 240 in 2017, 292 in 2018, 328 in 2019, 279 in 2020, 505 in 2021, 599 in 2022, and 687 until November of this year.

The UCF also noted that while 531 of these have been reported from four northern states with Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state, which is ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP) accounting for 287 of these incidents.

“Anti-conversion laws are being abused to target the Christians. More than 300 questionable arrests have been made under FORA (Freedom of Religious Acts),” Michael said. 

More than half of these have been reported from Uttar Pradesh, where Francis and others were detained.

With the decennial census of 2021 postponed due to the COVID pandemic, the India Census Net estimates Uttar Pradesh’s population as of 2023 to be over 231 million.

“In almost all incidents reported across India, vigilante mobs comprising religious extremists have been seen to either barge into a prayer gathering or round up individuals that they believe are involved in forcible religious conversions. With impunity, such mobs criminally threaten and/or physically assault people in prayer before handing them over to the police on allegations of forcible conversions. Often communal sloganeering is witnessed outside police stations, where the police stand as mute spectators,” UCF elaborated. 

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“Despite widespread international condemnation of the impunity that attackers face, national and state governments have done little to ensure justice,” the UCF said.

The UCF cited the study “Criminalizing the Practice of Faith” conducted by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which “documented how police colluded with Hindu nationalist groups and turned a blind eye to offenses committed against Christians” in southern Karnataka state.

“Though a lot of killings and atrocities against Christians have been reported in Manipur, UCF policy does not allow us to include these atrocities on Christians as persecution as it is basically rooted in ethnic conflict,” Michael pointed out.

Manipur was engulfed by a bloody clash between ethnic Meiteis (the majority of whom are Hindus) and Kuki tribals (all Christians) since early May, rendering over 50,000 Kukis refugees from the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley. Another 10,000 Meiteis were driven out from Kuki strongholds like Churuchandpur.

The protracted violence has claimed nearly 200 lives — most of them Kuki tribal Christians along with thousands of houses, businesses, and over 600 churches and dozens of temples.