A Tennessee pastor, who was detained in India for seven months before returning to the United States Tuesday, was forced to pay over $50,000 to secure his release, his lawyer said.
Lawyers for the American Center for Law and Justice announced Monday that charges against Pastor Bryan Nerren were officially dropped by prosecutors in India on Friday, resulting in a judge lifting travel restrictions and returning his passport.
Nerren is the pastor of International House of Prayer Ministries in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and founder of a nonprofit called Asian Children’s Education Fellowship, an organization that trains Sunday school teachers in India and Nepal.
His troubles began on Oct. 5, 2019, when he was arrested after stepping off a domestic flight in Bagdogra. Nerren was in the middle of a two-week trip to visit religious leaders in India and Nepal.
He was questioned about failing to pay duty on $40,000 in cash he brought into the country when he first arrived in New Delhi.
According to The ACLJ, which is representing Nerren, the money was to be used to cover the cost of two conferences.
The law group says Nerren’s failure to pay duty on the money is a result of a “misunderstanding” with airport officials in New Dehli. Further, the ACLJ noted that Nerren was not carrying the minimum amount of money that would have made it a crime to evade tax duty.
Nerren was jailed for six days in Siliguri before he was allowed to pay bail. Although he was released and paid about $4,000 in fines, he was prohibited from leaving the country to return home to his family.
“A misunderstanding that should have taken just hours to resolve administratively within customs, turned into a seven-month ordeal, involving false arrest, false charges, jail time, seizure of passport, travel ban, court hearings, custom reports, and appeals,” ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said in a statement.
“The reality is Pastor Nerren was never informed of the duty, although he openly declared the funds to customs in New Delhi. He was, however, specifically asked if he was a Christian and if the funds would be used to support Christian causes.”
ACLJ lawyer Cece Heil previously told The Christian Post that even though New Delhi customs agents told Nerren he could continue with his travels, he was falsely arrested when he arrived in Bagdogra.
“We are thrilled that Pastor Nerren has been allowed to return home to his family, who have desperately needed him,” Sekulow added.
Sekulow thanked U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster for his engagement in Nerren’s case as well as the engagement of four members of U.S. Congress: Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and James Lankford, R-Okla., as well as Reps. Scott SeJarlais, R-Tenn., and Jody Hice, R-Ga.
In a letter sent to Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in March, the Congress members pointed out that Nerren had accepted an offer to compound his sentence and compile $7,000 to be transferred to Indian customs upon the finalization of the agreement.
But Indian authorities demanded that Nerren submit a “waiver of forfeiture for the money lost.” According to U.S. lawmakers, that request was not included in the original conditions.
"The only way customs said they would let Pastor Nerren leave was by compounding the offense, which basically means dropping the charges and withdrawing the prosecution — according to their terms — which included keeping all of the $40,000, plus the penalty of $4,203.57, and an additional compounding fee of almost $2,000," Heil told CP in an email.
"Pastor Nerren was required to pay almost $50,000 before they would allow him to leave India. And that does not include his attorney fees. A situation that by law should have been resolved in 10 minutes by customs simply having Pastor Nerren fill out a one-page document and pay roughly $3,000 ended up costing Pastor Nerren $50,000-plus and 7 months of his life."
According to Heil, it doesn't seem there is any recourse available at the moment for Nerren to get his money back.
"At this time, it seems it is lost," Heil told CP.
In their letter, the representatives also noted that Nerren’s six-month visa required him to leave the country by April 2.
“We request that India uphold their end of the offer, as Mr. Nerren has upheld his, by finalizing the compounding of the offense and allowing him to return to his family,” they urged in the letter.
India ranks as the 10th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List. India has fallen 11 spots on the list since 2015. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014, a wave of Hindu nationalism has swept the country and led to increased persecution of religious minority communities.
In late April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the U.S. State Department label India as a “country of particular concern” for tolerating or engaging “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations” of religious freedom.
The Indian government has not publicly taken any responsibility for the alarming rate of human rights violations occurring within its borders and decried the new USCIRF recommendation as a "new level of misrepresentation.”