Seven pastors have been arrested in Northern India and could face years in prison after they were accused of forcible conversion even though family members say that the allegations stem from Muslim families' unwillingness to accept that their loved ones had converted to Christianity.
The London-based charity British Asian Christian Association has raised an alarm about the Monday arrests of missionaries in the Uttar Pradesh state who were charged under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code and could face up to three years for accusations that they performed a "forcible conversion campaign."
As originally reported by The Times of India, the pastors were accused of resorting to violence when the local Hindus refused to accept the evangelistic efforts after their ministry had been heavily active in the Irauli Gurjar area for the past month. The pastors were accused of trying force lower-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity.
Family members of Pastor Stanley Jacob told BACA, also known as the British Pakistani Christian Association, that Jacob and the other pastors were invited by a woman named Mamta to come to her house to pray on Monday. Mamta had recently moved to the village after she and her husband, Pradeep Singh, converted to Christianity.
"Mamta's sister had also recently converted to Christianity but all these conversions had caused upset within Mamta's family," BACA reports. "The pastors visited the house to hold a house meeting and share the gospel, pray and distribute bibles with local people who had been responding to invites to the meeting."
However, the prayer meeting was interrupted by local outraged Hindus.
According to BACA, Singh's uncle, Lal, called the police. Officers arrived quickly and took the pastors away.
Lal Singh also filed a complaint even though he was not present during the meetings and claimed that the pastors were guilty of promoting blasphemous content. Singh also claimed to have been told that there were forced conversions being done.
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According to BACA, the seven pastors were refused bail on Wednesday.
"I can't express the frustration I feel for these pastors. Words simply cannot convey the anger I feel when I think of their unwarranted arrest based on the lies of local people fearful of the Gospel message of Christ," BACA's lead officer in India, Pastor Naresh, said in a statement. "Men trying to save the lives and the souls of other are arrested on the whim of extremists, but they never lose their calling or faith."
The seven pastors arrested on Monday are: Stanley Jacob from Kerala, Pastor David from New Dehli, Vijay Kuma from Odisha, Pastor Amit from Mathura, Summit Varghese from Hathras, Pastor Anita from Hathras and Dinesh from Rajasthan.
"We will do what we can for these pastors. Already, I have counseled a few of the families and I am going to visit them and see what other support we can offer including support for legal fees," Naresh declared. "However, there are wives and children who await news daily, fearful of what will happen to the patriarch of their family. It's is simply a devastating situation."
BACA is accepting online donations that will go to help the families of the pastors and other persecuted Christians in India and Pakistan.
"These arrests so close to Christmas are going to hurt the affected families badly. A time of joy for so many, Christmas this year for the pastors arrested and their families will be a time of anxiety and fear," BACA Chairman Wilson Chowdhry said in a statement.
"India continues its trajectory towards despair. The caste system is gaining renewed impetus, destroying the lives of disenfranchised citizens simply for the families they were born into. Worse, still every minority living in the midst of the Hindu majority are living through a time of increased suspicion and animosity."
India ranks as the 15th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2017 World Watch List.
"Being a pastor in India is becoming a nightmare role, persecution here is reaching the levels that were present at the time of Paul," Naresh added in his statement.