First Christian arrested under ‘anti-conversion’ law in India's Uttar Pradesh while providing aid to poor

Catholic devotees wear face mask attend the Holy Mass at the Saint Joseph's Church on the first day after the reopening of religious services after the government eased restrictions imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Hyderabad on June 8, 2020. | NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

A Korean Christian and three citizens of India have been imprisoned in Uttar Pradesh state for providing food and other aid to the poor amid escalating persecution in the majority Hindu country. Accused of fraudulent conversion attempts, the four individuals are the first to be imprisoned under the state’s newly-enacted anti-conversion laws. 

Morning Star News reports that on Dec. 19, 50-year-old Mi Kyung Lee of Seoul, South Korea, and the three others were charged under the Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance in Greater Nodia, located in the Gautam Buddh Nagar District of Uttar Pradesh. 

Raj Kumar Masih, an organizer overseeing the distribution of aid, told the outlet that he has organized relief aid to thousands of people since obtaining permission from the Additional District Magistrate on March 23, 2020. Aid was distributed in various areas, including at his church site. 

“We have proofs of our distribution and names and phone numbers of our beneficiaries, who can testify that we have not asked any of them to change their faith or religion,” he said. “All beneficiaries were distributed ration kits, but none were promised any kind of money.”

However, according to the police complaint, a local woman claimed she was approached by the individuals arrested, who invited her to visit the local church to receive free rations offered during the pandemic. She told police the four began visiting her regularly and promised her money if she converted to Christianity.

As a result, local police arrested Mi Kyung Lee, a Korean Christian, Umesh Kumar, and two women helping with the distribution of aid named Seema and Sandhya. According to Morning Star News, Kumar and Sandhya are not Christians.

The four appeared in court on Dec. 20 and were remanded to jail, charged with violating Uttar Pradesh’s new anti-conversion law and blasphemy by outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.

Masih believes the false accusation and arrests are part of a well-planned conspiracy by local Hindu nationalists, noting that "nobody even bothered to ask the arrested their side of the story.”

“What is shocking is that the driver, Umesh Kumar, and Sandhya are not even Christians. The local media have falsely reported them all to be Christians,” he said. 

Though the case marks the first time Christians have been convicted of forced conversions and jailed in India, anti-conversion laws are widely abused in states where they are enacted.

Persecution watchdog International Concern notes that Hindu nationalists often abuse these laws by falsely accusing Christians of forcefully converting individuals to Christianity to justify harassment and assault. Local police often overlook violence perpetrated against Christians due to the false accusation of forced conversions.

The group previously warned that the anti-conversion law enacted in Uttar Pradesh would “incite more religiously motivated violence." Nearly 200 million people live in Uttar Pradesh, with only an estimated 350,000 identifying as Christian.

In April, over 30 Christians in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state were arrested on false charges of “forcible conversion” while providing food and other aid to the poor. However, police released the Christians with a warning that they should not be seen again attempting to convert people in the area.

A recent Persecution Trends survey from Release International predicted that in India, intolerance toward Christians and other religious minorities will continue to grow during 2021, largely due to growing Hindu nationalism.

RI noted that incidents targeting Indian Christians have risen steeply since 2014, when Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. 

It cited statistics revealing Christians suffered 225 incidents of religiously motivated violence during the first 10 months of 2020, compared to 218 incidents in the same period in 2019. Many of these attacks were by vigilante mobs.

The country is ranked at No. 10 on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

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