A Christian rights body has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to ensure members of the religious community are safe after those belonging to Hindutva organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad allegedly threatened to demolish churches in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh.
“The onslaught on citizens of minority faith continues in Madhya Pradesh,” a statement issued by the United Christian Forum on Saturday said. “Individuals claiming to be members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad say they are preparing to demolish churches in the Jhabua district on Sunday, 26 September.”
However, no violence or demolition was reported in the district till noon on Sunday, according to The Wire.
The United Christian Forum is an umbrella organisation of Christians that monitors and documents human rights violations against members of the community.
The statement said that Paul Muniya, the auxiliary bishop of Protestant Shalom Church in Jhabua, had submitted a memorandum addressed to President Ram Nath Kovind to the tehsildar on September 17. The letter sought that the “anti-Christian violence” in the state be stopped immediately.
The problem began in early September when a group of men visited several churches in the district and threatened to demolish all the “illegal structures running as churches”, according to The Wire. The men also accused the priests of forcefully conducting religious conversions.
Jhabua Sub-Divisional Magistrate LN Garg told The Wire that members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had approached the district administration and complained about a “conversion racket”.
“We told them that if we find any such instances of forced conversions, we shall investigate the matter,” Garg said. “However, so far, we have not found anything.”
The statement by the Christian organisation said that instead of protecting the minorities, the Jhabua administration had asked several priests to explain the nature of their religious activities as well as provide details of their appointments.
“The official letter also asked priests to certify if they themselves were converted through allurement or force while threatening to initiate legal proceedings against against any religious conversions,” the statement by the United Christian Forum added.
The bishop also raised concerns about the local administration allegedly taking sides with those threatening Christians, who make up only 4% of the 10 lakh residents in the district.
“If there is an illegal structure, let the administration take action,” Muniya asked. “Why are private individuals and organisations issuing such threats?”
Muniya also sought to know whether the same yardstick would apply to other religious structures in the district as well as the state.
According to the letter by Muniya, this is not the first time such an incident has taken place in the district. Earlier this year, a local leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Azad Prem Singh, had demanded closure of all churches in the district.
Madhya Pradesh anti-conversion law
Madhya Pradesh is one of the many Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states that have enacted the anti-conversion laws.
The Freedom to Religion Act states that no person shall convert or attempt to convert either directly or otherwise any other person from one religion to another by misrepresentation, allurement, use of threat or force, undue influence, coercion or by marriage or abet or conspire such conversion.
If a person is found guilty, he will be punishable with a prison term of one to five years and a fine not less than Rs 25,000. If the person who has been converted is a minor, a woman or a person belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the jail term for the accused person will be between two and 10 years and the fine will be Rs 50,000 or above.
Experts and social activists have repeatedly said that these laws can be misused by the governments to target minority groups such as Muslims and Christians, according to The Wire.
Data by the United Christian Forum from March last year shows that there were at least 27 incidents of violence against Christians in 10 Indian states – Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Goa.