Priest accused of ‘forced conversion’ in Jharkhand released on bail

Fr Binoy John was released for health reasons, but catechist Munna Hasda, who was arrested with him, remains in prison. About 3,000 tribal people demonstrate against the wreckage of a Jesuit college by radical Hindu nationalists.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A court in Jharkhand released Fr Binoy John on bail. The Catholic priest had been arrested almost two weeks ago on charges of forced conversions and seizing land.

The court accepted the lawyers' request for release on medical grounds. However, Munna Hasda, the catechist arrested along with the priest on the same charges on 6 September, remains in jail.

The two Catholics, along with a second priest who was freed right after his arrest, stand accused of engaging in forced conversions to Christianity at the Rajdaha mission, Godda, a district in the Diocese of Bhagalpur.

Yesterday at least 3,000 people, mostly from tribal communities, protested against another recent episode of anti-Christian intolerance in Jharkhand, namely the attack by some 500 radical Hindu nationalists against a Jesuit-run college in Mundli, which was looted and devastated as retaliation against a tribal student who had dared to talk back at another student who had proffered insults.

Fr Binoy, 42, has heart problems. After his release on Monday, he was taken to the district hospital for medical tests after the court granted his release.

The clergyman hails from Kerala but has worked in the Diocese of Bhagalpur for four years, running the prayer centre in Rajatha.

He "was victimised by some local people who were trying to encroach upon tribal land,” said Dean Kuriakose, a member of the Lok Sabha for the Congress Party.

“Fr Binoy,” he added, “has a heart condition and has already had a pacemaker implanted. The police produced a forged medical certificate before the magistrate hiding his health condition to ensure that he was sent to jail.”

In light of the situation, the lawmaker took up the matter with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the National Human Rights Commission, following which the clergyman was moved to Godda District Hospital on Sunday night.

Card George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church,[*] spoke out in favour of the release of the two detained Catholics.

The prelate condemned the improper manner in which the arrests occurred, with suspects taken from their residence without being informed about the charges.

He also objected to the court’s initial decision not to grant bail. “It is clear that those who are not happy with the social and educational activities of the missionaries among the villagers are behind this,” he said.

In 2017, Jharkhand enacted an anti-conversion law that provides for up to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$ 700) for those who engage in forced conversions to Christianity through deception, the offer of financial reward and persuasion. In the case of tribal people and women, the penalty increases.

According to the local Church, the law is not intended to punish forced conversions, but conversions in general, targeting specifically Christians for their work in favour of the poor, the marginalised and indigenous people.

[*] The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the three rites of the Indian Catholic Church. The other two are the Syro-Malankara and the Latin rites.