Date: February 12, 2021
Madhya Pradesh's state government enacts a new anti-conversion law.
By ICC’s India Correspondent
India (International Christian Concern) – “It was like a cyclone hit our state,” a pastor from India, who wished to remain anonymous, recently told International Christian Concern (ICC). A resident of Madhya Pradesh state, this pastor, and thousands of other local Christians have witnessed a dramatic escalation in their faith community’s persecution in the past month.
This new wave of persecution began on January 9, 2021, when the Madhya Pradesh state government enacted a new anti-conversion law. This ordinance, officially entitled the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance, was promulgated by the state government to regulate religious conversions and strictly criminalize forced conversions.
According to the new law, individuals seeking to change their religion will need to apply to the district administration 60 days in advance. Religious leaders facilitating religious conversions also need to inform the district administration 60 days in advance. If the provisions of the law are not followed, individuals could face a sentence of three to five years in jail and a financial penalty of 50,000 rupees.
The new law also criminalizes forceful religious conversions with a jail term of one to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 25,000 rupees. Section 3 of the law increases these punishments to two to ten years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees for individuals forcefully converting minors, women, or individuals belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe.
The enactment of the new anti-conversion law has incited radical Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh to scale up their persecution of local Christians aggressively.
“We are experiencing a dangerous situation,” a pastor from the Ratlam District, who wished to remain anonymous, told ICC. “We are not allowed to have fellowship, worship, or share our faith. We read in the news that this is part of making India a Hindu nation by 2021.”
“I have not led any worship service for my congregation for the last four weeks,” the pastor continued. “There are 30 other pastors in the area where I serve, and none of them are conducting worship for their congregations as well. We read in the newspapers that pastors are being charged under this new law for conducting worship. These pastors are repeatedly denied bail.”
“Pastors from other districts in Madhya Pradesh, whom I know quite well, are also being violently attacked,” the pastor continued. “They are being victimized for merely conducting worship services.”
“It feels like we have lost our freedom to worship and assemble as Christians,” the pastor concluded.
On February 7, a mob of 100 Bajrang Dal activists stormed a meeting hall where Christians attended a worship service in the Alirajpur District of Madhya Pradesh. The assailants attacked the Christians and then turned their rage on the church’s instruments, chairs, and other properties. Later, a portion of the meeting hall was demolished by the Bajrang Dal activists.
After the attack, the church’s pastor and other leaders were taken to the police station and charged under the new anti-conversion law.
“So many Christians in this state are in jail falsely charged under this new law,” a pastor familiar with the incident and wished to remain anonymous told ICC. “A number of them are repeatedly being denied bail. In one incident, a Christian who was arrested lost his government job.”
“The entire rural church has been completely shut down,” the pastor continued. “We are anxiously waiting to see what will happen to those arrested. The administration, police, and nationalists are working hand in hand, so we are sure that our calls for help will not be heard.”
According to local sources, all but two churches, both built in the British colonial era, have been shut down in Ratlam. Among the churches shut down are the Believers Church, Glory Church, CFI Church, Gospel Church, and Emmanuel Church.
“I am feeling terrible that we don’t have the freedom to meet as Christians now,” a Christian from Ratlam told ICC. “This is very hard to digest. However, I think the church will continue to grow. I want to believe that the faith will remain unshaken for the Christians of Madhya Pradesh.”
Vincent Gilbert, a Christian lawyer from the Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh, said, “None of the allegations of forced conversion against Christian pastors will stand in a court of law. The legal cases filed against these Christians are false and baseless. However, the torture and the trials terrify people, so we need to challenge as many cases as possible.”
According to the Hindustan Times, 28 people, the majority of them Christian, have been arrested and charged under Madhya Pradesh’s new anti-conversion law. Data collected by the Hindustan Times shows that eight cases in total have been registered since the law was enacted on January 9. Four cases have been registered against nine Muslims, and another four cases have been registered against 19 Christians.
Beyond the arrests, radical nationalist groups like the Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang have used the law’s enactment to launch a campaign of terror. This campaign has left many Christians injured and has shut down countless churches. Unfortunately, this wave of persecution seems unlikely to be ending any time soon.
HOW TO PRAY: Pray for churches to be able to meet safely in the area. Pray for the believers who have been charged under the new anti-conversion law. Pray for an end to this new wave of persecution.