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India bishops say “forced conversion” law is actually an obstacle to helping poor


Chetan Shivakumar | The Times of India via AFP

John Burger - published on 09/24/22

A southwestern Indian state has become the 10th to enact "forced conversion" legislation.

A state in southwestern India has become the latest to ban forced religious conversions. 

The “Right to Freedom of Religion Bill,” passed by the upper house of the state legislature, makes illegal any conversion due to “force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means” or “by a promise of marriage.” According to its provisions, any person who is a “victim” of attempts at “forced conversion,” his or her relatives, or even an acquaintance, can file a complaint.

Karnataka is now the 10th Indian state with anti-conversion laws.

The law carries a punishment of three to five years imprisonment, along with heavy fines.

In case of accusations of forced conversion, the law establishes that the burden of proof lies with the accused, according to Vatican News.

Bishops maintain that the law targets social and educational activities promoted by the Church.

The law had the support of the local pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Bangalore said the bishops of Karnataka, all Christian leaders, and “others who uphold the secular fabric of our democratic society” are considering legal challenges to the law,” which they said is “bitter, brutal, and abrasive.”

Fides reported last year that the bishops expressed concern about restrictions that would limit or prevent the possibility of foreign donations for charitable works for India’s poor.

According to Pew Research findings in 2021, Indian Christians disproportionally identify with lower castes (74%).

In May, Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, head of the Karnataka Bishops’ Conference, handed the Karnataka governor a memorandum listing the reasons for religious minorities’ opposition to the legislation. 

For its part, the local government maintains that the legislation will only protect people from forced conversions, arguing that they are becoming more and more frequent.

Karnataka, whose capital is Bangalore, borders several states, including Goa, which has a significant Christian population. In Karnataka itself, Christian make up less than 2% of the population. 

However, as Vatican News noted, India faces “growing intolerance against religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, who have been repeatedly attacked under the pretext of illegally converting poor people from Hinduism.”

Constitutional protection

India’s constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion, according to the 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, published by the US State Department Office of International Religious Freedom. It  mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. 

It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health.  

Other state governments have announced plans to enact laws banning forced conversions, including Haryana, Gujarat, and Assam.

According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population in India, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent.

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