A sessions court in Madhya Pradesh’s Ratlam town on Tuesday acquitted eight Christians accused of kidnapping 60 children for fraudulent religious conversion. The case dates back to May 22, 2017 when they were escorting 60 children from Adivasi Christian families to a religious retreat in Nagpur, Maharashtra. They were detained by the railway police in Ratlam, who registered a case of kidnapping and forced conversion against them.

One of the accused was a minor – 15 years old – when he was arrested. He had been charged under the Juvenile Justice Act. Another claimed to be 17, though the police charged him as an adult. The police had released the children within three or four days, and two women in 11 days, but the rest got bail only at the end of August.

“Scenes of joy erupted in Ratlam today,” said a press release from the Indian unit of the Alliance Defending Freedom. The lawyers who defended the accused are associated with ADF. “What followed [since May 22, 2017] was a tale of unspeakable harassment for the children and the accused at the hands of the authorities,” the press note added. “The eight adults from Ratlam, Jhabua and neighboring areas remained graceful in the face of all the disgrace that was directed against them by biased authorities who bought into a false narrative that is frequently used to target Christians.”

Two other Christians, who were booked in Indore on May 23, 2017, in a similar case, are now hopeful of being acquitted too.

“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith,” Tehmina Arora, director of ADF India, told Scroll.in. “We are grateful that the group of Christians have been acquitted of the crimes they were so unjustly accused of. Simply because they are part of a religious minority, they were targeted and falsely accused of kidnapping and forceful conversion. The Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom to practice and propagate religion. Sadly, such cases are not isolated incidents, but the prevalence of justice in this case gives comfort to all those Christians and other religious minorities facing harassment and hostility.”

Also read:

‘They called us traitors’: In MP, a teenager is among 10 people charged with forced conversions

Forced conversions were made illegal in Madhya Pradesh in 1968. That year, the state passed its Freedom of Religion Act, which required those conducting conversion ceremonies in the state to inform the district magistrate of the names and details of those who have converted within seven days. In 2013, the state passed an amendment that made the law even more stringent – instead of informing local administration a week after a conversion, individuals now have to give notice an entire month before the planned conversion. The police are empowered to investigate any objections that may be raised.

The legal restrictions have made minorities wary of informing the authorities about their religious affiliations. Dalits and Adivasis often begin to follow Christianity without intimating the local authorities, simply to avoid persecution or harassment, even as they continue to maintain their older affiliations on paper.