A Tennessee pastor is still being barred from leaving India three months after his arrest even though a customs case against him for allegedly not paying duty on the money he brought into the country has been resolved, according to a lawyer representing the family.
Cece Heil, senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice, told The Christian Post that pastor Bryan Nerren was scheduled to have a hearing before a court in Siliguri on Thursday morning as his case has gone back and forth between customs and the court system.
There was some hope, even though small, she said, that Nerren — the founder of a nonprofit that serves in Nepal called the Asian Children’s Education Fellowship — could be given back his passport and allowed to leave the country since he paid a fine related to what advocates say is an unfair charge of evading duty payment.
However, Thursday’s scheduled hearing in Siliguri was postponed, Heil said.
Nerren, the pastor of International House of Prayer Ministries in Shelbyville, was arrested on grounds that he brought $40,000 with him upon his entrance into India in early October 2019.
The money was to be used to pay for his two-week trip to India and Nepal to visit with pastors and to cover the costs of two conferences.
Nerren was arrested when he stepped off a domestic flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra, India.
Heil said that Nerren, who was traveling with two other pastors, was questioned about the money by security agents before boarding his flight in New Delhi. The pastor told the authorities that the money was to cover the conferences and his trip.
Heil said authorities asked Nerren during the interrogation whether he is a Christian and whether the funds will be used for “Christian purposes.” He was never given any forms to declare the money when in the visa line, the lawyer said.
Although he was initially cleared to fly, Heil said authorities in New Delhi phoned ahead to Bagdogra. Nerren was arrested once he deboarded the plane in Bagdogra.
Nerren was jailed for six days in Siliguri before being allowed to pay bail. However, a judge ordered a travel ban and took his passport.
“The fact that they told him he was free and cleared to go and then alerted Bagdogra to arrest him when he got there, the facts themselves indicate that it was a setup,” Heil contended.
The postponement by a judge in the Siliguri court comes after some questionable turn of events in Nerren’s case.
According to Heil, a Siliguri court was slated to hear Nerren’s case on Dec. 12. However, that hearing was preempted by an unscheduled court hearing on Dec. 7 in which a new judge was appointed. The new judge, she said, disregarded all of the previous judge’s requirements in Nerren’s case.
The previous judge, according to Heil, told Nerren that if he provided certain documentation, his passport would be returned and travel ban would be lifted. Although the documentation was produced on Nerren’s end, the judge was “mysteriously” placed on medical leave indefinitely.
“The original judge had stated that as soon as he received the report from customs and the prosecutor did not object, he would release the passport and lift the travel ban,” Heil explained.
“The new judge had the report and the prosecutor had no objections, but she would not release the passport or lift the travel ban. She requested a report from the prosecutor at the hearing on Dec. 12, at which date, the prosecutor simply did not show up and could not be found.”
Heil stated that when copies of the court order were received, the new judge sealed the case, leaving Nerren and his attorneys without access to anything in the file.
“Clearly, games are being played,” Heil said. “And meanwhile, pastor Nerren’s special needs daughter is at risk for failure to thrive, as she has lost 17 pounds from her already frail frame of 90 pounds. She does not want to eat without her father, who has been 50 percent of her care for the past 29 years.”
Nerren’s case has bounced between the Siliguri court and a court in Kolkata. Heil said it has been hard to determine which court has jurisdiction and final say in the matter.
“[N]ow that customs have finished their case, the court should have no problem returning the passport and lifting the travel ban,” she stressed. “It should be finished. Unfortunately, we have thought that several times before, and have continuously been disappointed.”
Although Nerren is not confined to home arrest, Heil said he is prevented from leaving the city of Siliguri.
“He cannot travel anywhere,” she said. “That’s what makes it impossible for him to have an appeal in Kolkata. He should be able to rightfully appeal. The court wants him to appear but because of the restriction and travel ban from the Siliguri lower court, he cannot do that.”
Heil reiterated that the court proceedings against Nerren are in theory now “moot” because the customs case is completed. She added that one of Nerren’s attorneys in India argues that this case should have never been put into a court of law and should have been handled completely within the customs adjudication.
“It has been complicated from the beginning,” she said. “It does seem that it is not the typical [response]. What I am hearing from pastor Nerren and what he is hearing from his attorneys is that this would not be the typical way that this case would have been handled. He would have never been arrested or put in jail.”
Heil said that ACLJ has been in contact with the U.S. State Department, senators and representatives regarding Nerren’s situation. Key senators that have helped in the case are Republicans Marsha Blackburn, Lamar Alexander, and James Lankford. Additionally, she said several representatives from the Tennessee delegation are helping as well.
“We also keep the vice president’s office updated on the facts as the case goes forward,” she said.
“Our government has been conveying these messages [calling for Nerren’s release] to the appropriate counterparts in the Indian government. So far, we just have not seen anything move in his case.”
Since the 2014 election of President Narendra Modi and the rise of his Bharatiya Janata Party, there has been a rise in Hindu nationalist violence and discrimination against religious minorities.
India ranks as the 10th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
“You can’t ever say exactly why something happened,” Heil said. “But in my personal opinion ... the fact that Nerren is a pastor and was carrying funds that they specifically asked him if he was a Christian and if the funds will be used for Christian purposes. I believe that was really what set off making him a target and why New Delhi didn’t just give him the documentation he needed.”
Over 130,000 people have supported an online petition calling for Nerren's release.