Christians Worry about Gujarat Anti-Conversion Law

Christians in the western state of Gujarat, India, are worried about the recent enactment of an anti-conversion law that threatens to imprison missionaries if they are convicted of "forcibly converting" someone to Christianity.

The "Gujarat Religious Freedom Act," or so-called anti-conversion law, passed in 2003 but did not apply until April 1 this year. It stems from India's Freedom of Religion Acts that has been implemented in five of India's 28 states.

"Our missionaries are trusting that the Lord will take care of them in this difficult time," commented K.P. Yohannan, Gospel for Asia's founder and president, in a statement. "Several states in India have enacted these types of laws, but the love of Christ is still going out."

Missionaries charged with "forcibly converting" someone could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

Although the Religious Freedom Act claims to help prevent religious conversion made by "force," "fraud" or "allurement," Christians accuse Hindu nationalists in the government of manipulating the law to falsely accuse them of illegal practice.

Under the law, if someone responds to the Gospel, the missionary must submit a completed form to the government that includes details about the person changing his or her faith.

Also, the person who is converting must report to the government 30 days before the "conversion ceremony," such as a baptism event.

If religious workers do not comply to these rules, they will face criminal charges. However, those in the Hindu religion are exempt from the stipulations of the new law, leaving many to believe it is targeting Christians and Muslims.

Christians are concerned that the law will open doors for anti-Christian extremists to more easily persecute believers, and that the needy will suffer because charitable work could be construed as bribery for people to "convert" to Christianity.

"Please pray that our missionaries and other Christian workers in Gujarat will have wisdom and strength from the Lord," said K.P. Yohannan. "Also lift up those that want to persecute the believers that they will come to Jesus in a personal way."

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat is infamous for persecuting religious minorities. The BJP is widely accused of giving a blind eye to massive persecution of Christians and Muslims living under its jurisdiction.

There are only about 284,092 Christians in Gujarat, which has a population of more than 50 million, according to the 2001 census.

But while conversions to Christianity is being restricted, massive re-conversions to Hinduism are being reported.

Just last Sunday, some 1,793 tribal Christians reportedly reconverted to Hinduism in a ceremony in Mumbai, India. The ceremony presider, Hindu leader Swami Narendra Maharj, accused Christians of using "luring and misleading" methods to convert Hindus, and said that "an anti-conversion law is needed," according to AsiaNews.

Earlier in April, some 1,000 Dalit Christians reportedly reconverted to Hinduism in a southern district in India.

The auxiliary bishop of Mumbai, Percival Fernandez, argues that no Christians baptized and received into the Catholic Church was forcibly converted, and challenged those who accuse them to produce such a person.

Bishop Percival, also the chairman of the St. John's National Academy of Health Sciences, urged legislators to not "waste time" working on anti-conversion laws, and instead use their "precious time" to "plan and execute projects that get drinking water, decent housing, daily affordable bread and primary education to the millions who are deprived of these basic requirements for which they have a right," according to AsiaNews.

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