08/01/2007, 00.00
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Gujarat governor rejects amendment that violates religious freedom

by Nirmala Carvalho
Amendment would have banned conversions to another religion even though the Indian constitution allows it. This is the third case in recent months where a governor rejects this kind of state bill. For Cardinal Toppo this is a good sign that India is still democratic and secular.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Gujarat Governor Nawal Kishore Sharma has sent back a controversial amendment to the religious conversion bill, saying that it violates the principle of freedom of religion. The governing Baharitya Janata Party (BJP) administration has not yet reacted to his decision but Card Telesphore Toppo has welcomed it.

Under the proposed bill, conversions would be deemed lawful only if they took place within the same religious confession, i.e. from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism; from Sunni Islam to Shia Islam.

However, the governor’s decision in no way changes the 2003 anti-conversion law which still punishes anyone who actively promotes conversions between confessions, from Hinduism to Islam for example.

In rejecting the proposed amendment Governor Sharma said that any change not violate art.25 of the Indian constitution which recognises the right to profess, practice and preach one’s own religion.

In welcoming the governor’s refusal, John Dayal, chairman of the All India Catholic Union, called on the Union (federal) government to act against similar laws in various states which violate the right to freedom of religion and encourage police persecution and unfair trials, especially in rural areas.

“Mr Sharma is the third governor to reject in recent months the so called Freedom of Religion bills, which are a thinly disguised attempt to curb freedom of faith under the pretext of preventing conversions by force or allurement by Christian missionaries,” Dayal said in a statement.

“Before Governor Sharma, [newly-elected] President Pratibha Patil in her capacity as the then governor of Rajasthan similarly rejected a bill passed by the state assembly even though the local Christian population is less than one per cent. The third case is that of Madhya Pradesh where Governor Balram Jhakkar refused to sign amendments by the BJP government.”

“Ruling United Progressive Alliance's Vice Presidential candidate Hamid Ansari in his earlier position as chairman of the National Minorities Commission had asked states to disclose incidents of forcible conversions,” Mr Dayal said. But “no state has been able to present a single genuine case.”

Card Telesphore Toppo, chairman of the Bishops’ Conference of India, told AsiaNews that Governor Sharma’s decision “is a good sign. We are proud of our secular democratic India and our constitution ensures that India” protects religious freedom.

“Ironically in Orissa, two nuns were arrested under Section 4 of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act (which bans forced conversion),” he said. “I told them that this is an occasion to rejoice and be glad because they were not arrested for doing anything wrong, illegal or unlawful, but rather for the privilege of participating in the suffering of Christ.”  

As persecuted and innocent as they are, “they should be proud that they were incarcerated under false accusations.” Indeed “the Indian Church will always do what is right even if it means persecution.”

“When Orissa was devastated by a cyclone,” the same nuns “worked tirelessly saving lives, helping [individual] victims and the entire community without concern for caste and religion. How sad this was forgotten, especially in Orissa, where the Church has worked with the poor and the marginalised Tribals and Dalits, improving their circumstances with our educational, health, vocational training centres.”

“In spite of the anti-conversion laws, the Church remains missionary by vocation,” the prelate said. “It continues its activities of evangelization, proud of participating in the suffering of Christ.”

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