Indian state legislature adopts law banning coerced religious

Associated Press, Mar. 26, 2003

AHMADABAD, India (AP) — An Indian state legislature on Wednesday approved a law that would impose a three-year jail term and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$2,100) on anyone found guilty of inducing or coercing someone into religious conversion.

The jail term would be four years if those forced to convert were minors, women or people belonging to the lowest castes in western Gujarat state.

The legislation will become a state law after it is approved by the federally appointed state governor — seen as a mere formality.

Hindu hard-liners contend such laws are needed to combat what they say is a Western conspiracy to undermine India’s majority Hindu faith. They accuse Christian missionaries of tempting poor tribal people and low-caste Hindus to convert by offering them jobs and money.

Christians, who make up 2.4 percent of India’s 1.02 billion people, fear the governing Bharatiya Janata Party plans to interfere with their constitutional right to propagate their faith. They say no one can force or pay someone to make a spiritual decision.

“We think that this legislation is likely to be abused by the government to harass the minorities,” said Cedric Prakash, convener of the United Church Forum for Human Rights.

Since its landslide victory in December’s legislative elections, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party has been pressing for the law.

It says that a person organizing conversions must have permission from the top district administrator, and the person who changes religions must also inform the administrator.

Christians have traditionally run schools and hospitals across India and there are fears among them that providing medical aid or education could be construed as an “inducement” to convert. Many Hindus attend Christian schools.

In 1999 there was a surge of violence against Christians in India. More than 50 prayer halls and churches were burned in Gujarat, Orissa and Bihar states, and an Australian missionary and his two young sons were burned to death in their jeep by a Hindu mob.

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