Christians in India protest government plan to amend anti-conversion law

.- Church leaders and others in Gujarat have protested the western Indian state government's move to amend and pass a law that regulates religious conversions, UCAN reports.

Archbishop Fernandes of Gandhinagar and Bishop Thomas Macwan of Ahmedabad submitted a memorandum to the state governor Sept. 20 to express the community's fear that the law would be misused; they urged him not to sign the amendment.

Archbishop Fernandes called the enactment of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act of 2003 and its amendment “frivolous exercises.”  Though the legislature passed the law and the governor signed it, the law was not published in the official gazette, which means it is not yet in effect.

The law requires citizens to request permission from a district magistrate to convert from one religion to another.

It also imposes three years' imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (US$2,100) for anyone found guilty of converting someone else "by use of force or any fraudulent means," terms which are to be judged by the government’s courts.  If the converted person is a minor, woman, or member of a dalit (low caste) or tribal community, the jail term can be up to four years.

The state's pro-Hindu government introduced a bill Sept. 19 to amend the law in order to clear certain confusions regarding forced conversion and who should apply for permission to convert from one religion to another.

The amendment says "to convert means to make one person renounce one religion and adopt another; but does not include one who renounces one denomination and adopts another denomination of the same religion."

The amendment allows people to change from one sect to another under the same religion without permission. This would mean a Protestant can freely change to Catholicism or a Shia Muslim become a Sunni Muslim.

However, the amendment also categorizes Buddhists and Jains with Hindus, so changing from one of these religions to another is not considered conversion.

Samson Christian, joint secretary of the ecumenical All India Christian Council, says the law contradicts the country's constitution that allows people to choose their religion.

The archbishop said the governor has asked the Church leaders to submit a detailed report on how the amendment would violate human rights and hinder religious liberty. "We will submit a report within 10 days," he added.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu Council), however, welcomed the amendment as a good means to keep tabs on Christian evangelization efforts in tribal areas.

The law will spoil the Vatican plans "to capture the vulnerable Hindus," added Jaydeep Patel, the group’s general secretary.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people's party) rules Gujarat. Many view it as the political arm of groups that want to make India a Hindu theocratic state.

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