08/07/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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President of Indian bishops slams Chattisgarh anti-conversion law

by Nirmala Carvalho

Mgr Oswald Gracias has said the new laws are unconstitutional and the mark of a "totalitarian regime". The law punishes conversions with fines and imprisonment. But no penalty is foreseen for those who "return" to Hinduism.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – The Indian Catholic Church has slammed the latest move by fundamentalists to legalise the persecution of Christian missionaries in the country. Interviewed by AsiaNews, Mgr Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), was critical of the government of Chattisgarh, which recently approved a new anti-conversion law, "curtailing the freedom of thought and the faith of each citizen".

On 3 August, Chattisgarh – run by the nationalist-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – approved a law obliging anyone who wants to change religion to communicate the decision a month in advance to the district magistrate, who may give or withhold permission. Those violating the law will be liable to fines ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 rupees, as well as up to three years imprisonment. The same penalty applies to those who undertake "forced conversions". Chattisgarh is the third BJP-led state to adopt such legislation since last April, after Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh

Mgr Gracias said the amendment was "unconstitutional and against religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution". This "infringes personal freedom, trespassing in the innermost sacred space of a person - his freedom of conscience." The bishop said the anti-conversion law therefore "curtails the freedom of thought" of every Indian.

In India, religious freedom is safeguarded by Article 25 of the Constitution that allows each citizen to profess and propagate the faith of his choosing in full freedom. The Chattisgarh government said the decree "does not in any way go against the constitutional Charter; if anything it defends it."

Mgr Gracias said he saw in the mark of a "totalitarian regime" in this political move of the BJP. "The Church is totally against forced conversions, and this amendment gives certain people the power to harass Christian and religious leaders." The CBCI president said the recently passed law does not include conversions to Hinduism as such decisions are merely held to be a "return to one's forefather's religion or his original religion".

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