01/03/2007, 00.00
INDIA
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Himachal Pradesh introduces anti-conversion law too

It is the first time that a state run by Congress has introduced a law of this kind, usually promoted by nationalists. The Congress Party tends to be against such laws that are in force in another five states of the Union. The Church is concerned.

Shimla (AsiaNews) – The government of Himachal Pradesh in northern India has introduced an anti-conversion law. The local administration led by the Congress Party acted on a proposal submitted by nationalist factions and approved the law on 29 December. The news was welcomed by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but caused alarm among minority communities, especially Christians.

 

Kaul Singh, Justice Minister, said: “According to the Bill, if someone has been forced to change his religion without his consent, he could come back to his own religion within a month." Those who force or induce others to change their religion are liable to be severely punished.

 

In recent months, five states ruled by the nationalist BJP or its allies have introduced or strengthened such laws. The authorities claim that the aim is to protect India's religious identity and foster communal harmony. But Himachal Pradesh is a unique case: it is the first time this kind of law has been passed in a state ruled by the Congress Party, which is usually critical of such legislation.

 

Back in November 2005, when the draft bill was being studied, the Indian Catholic Church had already expressed strong concern about the fact that “another State of the Union, which has always been a secular state, is trying to implement an anti-conversion law”. Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, secretary general of the Bishops' Conference of India, had told AsiaNews: “Apart from the law, it is worrying that the social ministry of the Church is being scrutinised and regarded with such suspicion.”

 

India’s extreme right-wing factions are pressing ahead with widespread political propaganda that exploits religion to win votes. To this end, they implement campaigns defaming Christian missionaries, especially Catholics, accusing them of converting the poorest Hindus through deceit and the promise of benefits.

 

Mgr Fernandes recalled that “for over a century, the Church has been actively involved in working among the poor and marginalised through her health, educational and welfare programmes. Never before have these good works been doubted."

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