Church leaders in the Indian state of Orissa have decided to ignore a controversial law requiring citizens who convert to another faith to seek permission beforehand from the state government.

Christians are challenging in the state high court the constitutional validity of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, which became law in November 1999. In the meantime senior church leaders in the state are simply declining to follow "the letter of the law."

The law is seen by local churches as a tool to halt conversions to Christianity in the eastern India state.

In an incident last week that drew media attention to the law, police in the district of Balasore stopped a conversion ceremony.

Channa Singh and five members of his family—of the indigenous tribal community—decided recently to become Christians, and applied to the district collector early in February, as required by the Freedom of Religion Act. Their application was signed by a local Baptist pastor, Rameswar Mundu.

The Singh family then waited for the relevant government official to ask the police to investigate their request and file a report on whether they were converting for appropriate reasons. (Churches have been accused of enticing people to convert to Christianity by giving them material benefits.)

As the family had no news about their application three weeks after submitting it, they and Pastor Mundu decided to go ahead with the conversion ceremony. But the police intervened and halted the event.

According to local reports, government officials under pressure from two fundamentalist Hindu groups, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, deliberately delayed responding to the request.

When ENI asked local church officials about difficulties caused by the law, they said they did not go out of their way to fulfil the requirements of the "unconstitutional" law.

"We do carry out conversions, but do not bother about this law," said Bishop Ruben Senapati, head of Orissa's Church of North India diocese of Cuttack.

Speaking to ENI by telephone from his office at Cuttack, Bishop Senapati said: "We file an affidavit [about the conversion] at the local court and that is all. Baptisms have been taking place in several places without any problem even recently."

He added that the police intervention in Balasore was "wrong * Once we file an affidavit, our duty is done."

His Roman Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, expressed similar views: "We feel this law is illegal, and so we do not bother about it," he told ENI. He added that the churches had begun their court challenge of the law almost a year ago. "The government is using delaying tactics."

An ecumenical organization—the Bhubaneshwar Christian Council—and the Orissa Minorities Forum (OMF)—filed their challenges to the law last March. Both pointed out that the law violated the freedom "to profess, practice and propagate" the religion of one's choice, guaranteed by India's federal constitution.

Archbishop Cheenath said the state government's lawyer was inventing excuses, refusing to hand over documents required by the court. "The government does not want the case to be taken up for hearing at all," the bishop said.

Asked what Christians should do about the law in the meantime, Archbishop Cheenath replied: "Ignore it. What else can we do?"

Swarupo Patro, general secretary of the All Orissa Baptist Churches Federation and convener of the Orissa Minority Forum, told ENI that Christian protests had so far had "no impact" on the anti-Christian legislation.

Patro declined to comment further, except to say that there was no point in talking about it.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the controversial Orissa law includes:
Weblog: Take Up Arms Against Missionaries, Says Hindu Leader | Clouds darkening over India (Mar. 6, 2001)

Indian Churches Protest 'Price Tag' for Christian Conversion | Orissa ordering official permission, fees to change religion (Mar. 23, 2000)

India's Christians Resist Move to Register Conversions | State's legislation unconstitutional, says leaders. (May 2, 2000)

The Fiery Rise of Hindu Fundamentalism | After a missionary and his two sons are martyred, Christians in India press for greater religious freedom. (Mar. 1, 1999)