Indian pastor remains jailed despite bail after Hindu extremists file false conversion charges
NEW DELHI — A pastor in northern India remains in jail after more than three months despite winning bail because Hindu extremists filed new false charges against him, his wife said.
“We are going through troubled times, and we don’t know when this will come to an end,” said Preeti Masih, whose husband, Pastor Vijay Masih, completed 100 days in jail on Feb. 7.
The pastor of an Evangelical Church of India (ECI) congregation in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh state, won bail orders on Jan. 16, but new cases filed against him extended his arrest term. Initially, he had been arrested on April 14, 2022, and was released on bail after three days, but then he was arrested again on Oct. 30.
Pastor Masih and 49 Christians in the Hariharganj locality of Fatehpur were arrested one after another starting last April under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, and other laws. The initial complaint was filed by an official of the local Hindu extremist Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) against 35 identified Christians and 20 unidentified Christians on April 15.
Pastor Masih and the other arrested Christians, plus a few more, faced newly filed charges in
a complaint by Virendra Singh on Jan. 23. The complaint lists 47 identified Christians and 20 unidentified Christians, and the same names figure in another complaint filed on the same day by Sanjay Singh.
In both the complaints, the Christians are baselessly accused under provisions of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, along with unfounded claims of forgery, cheating and criminal conspiracy.
“We have a list of about 55 Christians whom to arrest, and we have arrested 49 of them and have received NBW (non-bailable warrant) for the six who were left,” Senior Sub-Inspector of Kotwali police station in Fatehpur Santosh Kumar told Morning Star News.
He confirmed that all four of the registered complaints since April 14 repeat the same list of names with only few additions in the latter two.
“If the six who are currently not arrested abscond from the police, we have orders to attach their properties under section 82 and 83 of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” he said.
Maundy Thursday attack
The cases began when a mob of Hindu extremists shouting “Jai shree Ram [Hail, lord Ram]” surrounded Pastor Masih’s Maundy Thursday church service on April 14, Preeti Masih said.
News media accompanied the extremists, who had brought locks that they used to lock the front and the back gates of the church property. VHP leaders called the police even as the Christians inside reported the attack to officers by phone.
Upon arrival, officers told the Christians to remain calm and allow them to handle the matter, even as they prepared to arrest them.
“We were fooled by believing that the police will do the right thing,” Preeti Masih told Morning Star News. “They noted down the personal details of all the Christians, like the aadhaar number (government-issued ID), date of birth, present address and permanent address along with their names.”
Officers told the Christians they would take them to the police station and then let them go, she said.
“Like fools we believed the police, and 35 from amongst us were taken to the police station along with Pastor Vijay,” she said.
As the Christians waited at the station, officers filed a First Information Report (FIR) against 35 identified and 20 unidentified Christians, and they were taken to court. Nine of them who were aged or had physical ailments were allowed to return home, and the rest — including women and young children — were sent to jail.
They procured bail and were released two days later, on April 16.
In his complaint, the local VHP official, Himanshu Dikshit, accused those gathered at the church service of forcibly converting 90 Hindus. Station Head Officer Amit Mishra then baselessly told news outlet ThePrint that the ECI was heavily involved in forcefully converting Hindus and others, Preeti Masih said.
Mishra reportedly said the Christians “would give all kinds of allurements, like admissions to children in missionary schools and jobs to youngsters in the local missionary hospital and NGOs. They would go to villages and extend financial help to people. They would buy buffaloes for those who couldn’t afford them.”
The station head told ThePrint that 1,000 to 2,000 people were estimated to have been converted by church members named in the FIR.
Preeti Masih roundly denied the allegations, saying they were all made-up stories.
“None of the allegations of allurement and forced conversion are true,” she told Morning Star News. “Police did not ask us anything. They have only heard one-sided complaints from the opposition party, and under pressure from them they have carried out arrests.”
Edwin J. Wesley, legal officer and the general secretary of the ECI, said the VHP leader and his supporters made up the entire story. He called the case a complete fake.
“The FIR is totally false and baseless,” Wesley told Morning Star News. “If one visits the church, it is evident that the church capacity itself is not more than 60 people, so those who were present at the time of the attack inside the church were the total number of people mentioned in the FIR.”
Preeti Masih said she and her husband lived peacefully with area Hindus and had good relations with everyone.
“We have been living cordially along with our neighbors for many years now,” she said. “We have had no problems on personal levels with anybody. It is very shocking as well as very hurting to see our neighbors speak against us. Only when media people arrived and interviewed our neighbors have they come up with stories and spoken against us, even when none of it is true, and we have done nothing to be targeted.”
History of harassment
Three police stations in Fatehpur have filed at least seven FIRs since the beginning of 2022 on complaints from the VHP and Bajrang Dal, claiming Christians were trying to convert Dalits and Hindus through allurement, trickery, coercion and other means.
Most of the 35 named in the initial FIR are employees of the Broadwell Christian Hospital in Fatehpur, a 113-year-old hospital established in 1909. Police issued notices to the chairman of the hospital, Dr. Samuel Mathew, and clerk Parminder Singh on Jan. 4 to provide documents for the investigation, according to the FIR.
Officers also issued notices to the staff of World Vision International’s Fatehpur office and the bishop of the Evangelical Church of India in Prayagraj to provide materials as part of the investigation.
Separate notices were issued on Dec. 28 to Chancellor Jetti Oliver, Vice-Chancellor Bishop Rajendra B. Lal and administrative official Vinod B. Lal of Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture Technology and Science (SHUATS), Prayagraj, to record their statements, according to the FIR. A notice has also been served to Senior Pastor the Rev. Paul Sigamony, ECI Church-Allahabad Bible Seminary, a resident of Prayagraj, about 80 miles from Fatehpur.
Fatehpur police on Jan. 20 filed a separate FIR against eight officials in Prayagraj, including the vice-chancellor and two pro vice-chancellors, alleging criminal conspiracy and violations under the U.P. Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020.
As arrests continued the past 10 months and a local intelligence unit investigates accusations in Prayagraj, each day something new crops up, the ECI’s Wesley said.
“We knew this matter is false, and soon it will be sorted in Fatehpur, but sadly it has spread from Fatehpur to Allahabad [now Prayagraj], and many small villages in and around Allahabad where church fellowships are held,” he said. “They are enquiring of the village churches about the date of their establishment, and who is in charge of the church/fellowship.”
Police have not limited themselves to small villages but also large institutions like SHUATS and Allahabad Bible Seminary, Wesley said.
Meantime, Preeti Masih has managed to sustain herself and her two children, ages 12 and 10, on her husband’s salary that ECI continues to remit. She visits her husband at least twice a week and encourages him to press on.
Pastor Masih has been leading the ECI church in Fatehpur for last 13 years.
A spokesperson for the Evangelical Fellowship of India Religious Liberty Commission said local media have contributed to the surge of false accusations of fraudulent conversions in India.
“Clearly forceful conversion is nothing but a sham, and it’s just a bogey that is being dragged with the idea of creating a false narrative,” the spokesperson said on condition of anonymity. “And media plays a major role in creating this perception about the community. As far as forceful conversion is concerned, there hasn’t been any single instance of conviction in the past or even now, because Christians are merely followers of Christ and believe in the idea of serving, loving and taking care of each other.”
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was ranked No. 31 in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.
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