Date: October 2, 2019
by Elizabeth Kendal
Perched high in the Himalayan mountains, bordering Tibet and Kashmir, is the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh (HP). Its capital, Shimla, once served as the summer capital of British India. Behind the spectacular scenic beauty - which gives witness to God's 'eternal power and divine nature' (Romans 1:18-23) - dark spiritual forces have staked a claim. Known as Devbhumi - the land of the gods - HP is a centre of Hindu pilgrimage. Indeed, this land in which every mountain is named after a god is full of idols and idolatry. HP is also home to more than 100,000 Tibetan Buddhist refugees who, like high-caste Hindus, are immensely resistant to spiritual breakthrough. That said, Indian missionaries working in HP have been planting churches, establishing ministries and witnessing real growth. However, in a state that is 95 percent Hindu and only 0.2 percent Christian, a state in which only 15 of 115 people groups have congregations of believers, there is clearly much work to do - work that is about to become ever more costly.
In December 2006 the HP state legislature - dominated at the time by the supposedly secular Indian National Congress (INC) - passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2006, making HP the first Congress-led state to enact an anti-conversion law. In August 2012 the HP High Court struck down portions of the Bill judged to be in violation of the constitution. On 30 August 2019 the HP legislature - now dominated by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - unanimously (i.e., with Congress support) passed the HP Freedom of Religion Bill 2019. Introduced by Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, the 2019 Bill replaces the 2006 Bill, broadening its scope, restoring unconstitutional provisions previously struck down by the High Court and increasing its punishments.
The 2019 law mandates that, 'no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or by fraudulent means or by marriage; nor shall any person abet or conspire such conversion.' However, 'if a person re-converts to his parent religion it shall not be deemed a conversion under this Act.' Furthermore, any person wanting to convert must first give one month's notice to the district magistrate, stating that they are converting of their own free will. Likewise, a priest intending to perform a conversion ceremony/event will also need to give a month's notice in advance. 'Inducement' is defined in the Bill as the 'offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification or material benefit, either in cash or kind or employment, free education in a reputed school run by any religious body, easy money, better lifestyle, divine pleasure or otherwise.' So presumably all claims of 'free will' will be challenged! Anyone who 'abets or conspires such conversion' faces a prison term of one to five years. If the convert is a woman, a minor or a Dalit (the lowest group in India's Hindu caste system, formerly known as 'untouchables'), then the jail term will be between two and seven years. Offences committed under the Act are non-bailable. The HP government insists that the Bill is needed to preserve a 'peaceful atmosphere' and check 'forced religious conversions' which are allegedly 'on the rise' in the state.
As the president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) Sajan K George laments, anti-conversion laws only serve to introduce suspicion and hostility into communities that had previously co-existed in peace. Indeed, on 14 September a group of around 150 Hindu nationalist activists managed to shut down a prayer meeting taking place in a private guest house in HP's Sunder Nagar District. The activists protested, chanting anti-Christians slogans including 'Christian missionary go back'. As police attempted to calm the situation a government official arrived and insisted the Christians produce a document proving they had permission for the 'event'. Although organiser Amar Singh explained that the 'event' was just an ordinary prayer meeting comprising scripture readings and prayers and that no conversions were taking place, it was in vain. Because the Christians could not produce any such document, the 'event' was shut down. While Christian witness in HP is about to become very costly, 'the heights of the mountains are his' (from Psalm 95).
PLEASE PRAY THAT OUR ALMIGHTY GOD WILL
* awaken Indians to the repressive and unreasonable nature of anti-conversion laws; may they be awakened to the fact that the freedoms being lost are their own freedoms; instead of rejecting peaceful co-existence and freedom, may they reject intolerant communalism and those who fuel it.
'For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but ... against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore ...' pray! (from Ephesians 6:12-18 ESV)
* graciously pour out his Holy Spirit in Himachal Pradesh to break through the darkness that prevents Indians from seeing and embracing the God of Creation who holds in his hand 'the depths of the earth' and 'the heights of the mountains'; may their love for the mountains translate into worship of him who made them. (Psalm 95).
* comfort, encourage, sustain and preserve the Church in Himachal Pradesh: may all Christian pastors, evangelists, lay-workers and faithful believers be graced with divine wisdom to navigate the increasingly difficult path before them; may they have boldness and faith to continue the mission of proclaiming truth, life and light in a land in the grip of untruth, idolatry and darkness.
'In [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.' (from John 1:1-5 ESV)
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PAPUA: Update to RLPB 521 (25 Sep) and RLPB 519 (10 Sep)
The death toll from the Monday 23 September riots in Wamena has risen to 33. Most of the dead were non-native; nine were migrants from West Sumatra. More than 80 shops owned by migrant workers from West Sumatra were burnt. Reports have emerged of native Papuans rescuing, assisting, escorting and guarding non-natives, as rioters - described as 'outsiders' who were 'not recognised' - wreaked havoc, primarily targeting non-natives. A mass exodus is now underway, with non-natives fearing more violence, and native Papuans fearing 'reprisals'. Almost all schools and most shops in Wamena remain closed. More than 6,700 residents taking refuge in evacuation sites in Wamena are urgently in need of humanitarian aid. The Air Force has already evacuated some 2,670 residents, while a further 10,000 are waiting to be airlifted out. Meanwhile, security forces reportedly are 'sweeping' their way towards Wamena.
President Joko Widodo has expressed willingess to dialogue with Papuan leaders. However, Papuan Church leaders suspect that Indonesian forces are working hard to transform a 'vertical conflict' (Indonesian government v Papuans) into a 'horizontal conflict' pitting native Papuans against migrants. The result could be an influx of the jihadist and merah putih (red and white / Indonesian nationalist) militias which have long served as proxies of Indonesian security forces. This scenario is reminiscent of the conflict that wracked eastern Indonesia's Maluku islands through 1999-2001, which the security forces used to bring down reformist president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). Please watch and pray.
'For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also... Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!' (from Psalm 95).