In an environment of increasing religious intolerance, two state legislatures in India may require individuals to register a change of religion with local officials.In Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh states, supporters of the legislation hope the measures will curb conversions to Christianity. But Christian leaders are demanding the immediate withdrawal of the bills, saying the legislation violates India's constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion. Article 25 of India's constitution explicitly grants the right to "profess, practice, and propagate religion," subject to public order, morality, and health. In Gurjarat state, the Freedom of Religion bill also has a registration clause aimed at curbing so-called forcible conversions. I n Uttar Pradesh state, the Religious Places and Building Regulation bill prevents constructing or making alterations to religious sites without governmental permission. The bill awaits presidential assent.In another Indian state, Orissa—where missionary Graham Staines and his sons were murdered last year—newly enacted restrictions require individuals to obtain official permission before changing religion.Such legal moves are an attempt to "provoke social tension by communal forces," says Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India."Christians stand united against such atrocious attempts to curb religious freedom. All these bills and regulations are directed against minorities, and in Orissa and Gujarat, targeted against the Christians in particular," Howell says.But Hindu leaders have a different perspective. "The process of conversions had created chaos," counters M. A. K. Swain, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janta Party-controlled parliament from Orissa. "Christians were converting people into Christianity, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [was] reconverting them into Hinduism. Some rules became essential to stop all these conversions carried out by allurement and enticement.""Even the Church doesn't accept such kinds of conversions," says Dominic Emmanuel, public affairs director of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, who denies cases of conversion by force."We will keep up our struggle against the undemocratic legislation which restricts one's choice of faith," Emmanuel says. "We have written to the prime minister and the president, apprising them of our concern on the issue, while we continue to fight for religious freedom by joining hands with secular-minded people and human-rights groups.""India is a secular state, and it is an individual's fundamental right to practice and propagate the religion of his own choice," says Ashok Arora, senior government counsel for the Supreme Court of India. "Any law that violates religious freedom has to be struck down as unconstitutional, as it spoils the constitutional structure. Even in cases of conversions, the authorities have no right to interfere."But even in a secular state, politics and religion are easily confused. "It's every Hindu's religious duty and responsibility to support the bill," says Mangubhai C. Patel, minister for welfare of scheduled tribes in Gujarat state. "It's God's gift to be born a Hindu, and everybody should fight those who try to convert us by threat or temptation."Defenders of religious freedom see the issue as a matter of human rights. "Laws that curb freedom to choose religion go against the constitution," says Archbishop Alan De Lastic, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and member of the National Integration Council. "I don't understand why the state governments should waste time on making such laws when there are more serious problems of poverty, illiteracy, and corruption to tackle."Coercion cannot cause true spiritual transformation, De Lastic says. "Forced conversions are no conversions for me."
See our earlier coverage of this subject, "Indian Churches Protest 'Price Tag' for Christian Conversion | Orissa ordering official permission, fees to change religion" (Mar. 23, 2000)
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