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 ...

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