Christian leaders in India are demanding the release of two Catholics arrested earlier this month on accusations they forcibly converted locals to Christianity and illegally occupied the land.
Priest Binoy John and catechist Munna Hansda were arrested on Sept. 6 in Rajdaha, a locality in the Eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, where the government is controlled by the Hindu nationalist-aligned Bharatiya Janata Party.
The two were arrested along with a second priest, Arun Vincent. But Vincent was released while the other two remain in custody, according to the Catholic press agency Asia News.
The Catholics were detained after police acted on a complaint from a villager accusing them of pressuring locals to convert to the Christian faith.
The New Indian Express reports that police officers went to their residences and asked the Catholics to report to the police station without providing any explanation as to why their presence was requested. When they arrived, the two were reportedly arrested and charged with the crime of forced conversion.
Priest Alphonse Francis, the former vicar general of the Diocese of Bhagalpur, told the Catholic news outlet Crux that the allegations against Hansda and John are “baseless and fabricated.”
“The current dispensation in Jharkhand is very hostile to Christian missionaries, and our services are selectively targeted and harassed,” Francis said.
Francis explained that the diocese had operated a parish and a retreat center in Rajdaha for three years. The retreat center, he added, is also used to host community meetings for “all castes and creeds” as well as women’s groups, children’s groups, and self-help groups.
He contended that the two arrests were “basically a land issue.”
“This land was offered to us, as under the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT), tribal land cannot be transferred or sold to non-tribals,” Francis was quoted as saying. “I would like to know what provoked this arrest, never has there been any communal tensions previously.”
Seven states in India have forced conversion laws on their books, which ban spiritual conversions through inducement or coercion.
However, Christian leaders have complained that Hindu nationalist groups have taken advantage of the laws to launch criminal complaints against missionaries and church leaders active in their local areas.
An anti-conversion law was passed in Jharkhand in 2017 to ban people from spiritually converting others "by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.” The crime is punishable by up to three years in prison.
At the time, Christian leaders in Jharkhand voiced concern that such a law would “ruin the lives and the witness of the church” as the BJP at the national and state level wants to “implement its Hindutva ideology.”
Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church based in Kerala, asked a district court in Jharkhand on Sept. 12 to immediately release Binoy and Munna after the two were denied bail, according to the Union of Catholic News Agency.
“It is to be suspected as being a deliberate move to prolong their custody,” Alencherry was quoted as saying. “It is clear that those who are not happy with the social and educational activities of missionaries among the villagers are behind this.”
Hansda and Binoy are not the only Catholics in police custody in Jharkhand, as church leaders are also decrying the arrests of Father Julian Ekka, a vice-principal of a Jesuit-run school in Koradih, and the school’s nurse, Emerencia Lomga, on accusations of rape filed by a father of a 9-year-old girl.
However, Jesuit priest Jerome Sequeira told ucanews.com that church leaders investigated the allegations and found the nurse and priest to be innocent and “in no way connected to the child abuse case.”
For the last few years, Christians in Jharkhand have complained of a state-sponsored campaign designed to discredit Christian ministries and leaders in the state.
Last year, Christians in the state formed a 12-mile-long human chain to protest government harassment against the Christian community.
According to 2011 census data, Christians make up just 4.3 percent of Jharkhand's total population.
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. Attacks against Christians have increased since the BJP rose to power nationally in 2014.