Another Indian state bans religious conversions as missionary murder trial continues
Under a new law passed today, any of the 51 million people living in India's western state of Gujarat must obtain government permission before converting to another religion or they will face up to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 rupees ($20). Those "inducing" others to convert face up to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees ($1,000).

"We will oppose this draconian law as it's against the spirit of India's constitution, which allows freedom to propagate and practice any religion," Samson Christian, a spokesman for the All India Christian Council, told Reuters. Christians only form about 0.5 percent of the state's population.

The passage of the bill was not without debate, reports India Express. Members of the Congress party tried to shout down the bill's supporters, and one representative "broke the microphone and hurled its pieces, which fell on the Speaker's podium," the newspaper reports. "Unruly scenes in the House forced the Speaker to suspend all Congress legislators for remainder of the day."

The Global Council of Indian Christians also strongly opposed the bill, saying it has the "potential for chaos," and will make things worse for Christians, who are already facing increasing oppression, blackmail, and intimidation.

Others pointed out that the only intent of the law is to intimidate Christians. "As it is, any forced conversion could be prosecuted even without this bill because the use of force would be punishable under any provision of law. The use of force is not permissible. Therefore this bill is not necessary at all," Justice Rawani, former justice of the Rajasthan High Court, told NDTV.

Last October, the southern state of Tamil Nadu also banned so-called forced conversions, but the BBC reports that the Gujarat law may be even more stringent. Other states are also considering similar laws as radical Hindus claim Christians are enemies of the state and are bribing or forcing Hindus to convert.

"They believe in Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. You tell a lie a hundred times and people believe it is true," Ajit Jogi, the tribal Christian chief minister of Chhattisgarh state in central India, told Reuters earlier.

The radical Hindu political party BJP, which runs the national government, pushed for the bill. "Everybody in India understands that one should live and die in the religion one is born into. Nobody should have the right to disturb this tradition," said Jayanti Barot, general secretary of the Gujarat BJP.

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Gujarat has been the center of much religious tension lately. Last year, Hindu attacks on Muslims left more than 1,000 people dead. Yesterday, the state's former home minister, who was accused of supporting the anti-Muslim violence, was shot dead. In recent weeks, the state has been surveying Christians in a way that many observes see as sinister.

"Only one thing has been constant in the four-year attempt to prepare a database: the preconceived notion implied in the questions that Christians receive foreign funds to 'convert' people and that they indulge in 'anti-national' activities," says an editorial in The Hindustan Times. "However, facts tell a different story. … The Christians in Gujarat have a reason to suspect that the discreet survey is a build-up to the anti-conversion bill … and/or for the preparation of a database of Christians to be handed over to communal [radical Hindu] organizations."

The Associated Press reports that among the questions asked in the survey are: Were you a Hindu earlier? When and why did you convert? Are you getting any money every month from Christians? Do you read the Bible? Why did you convert? Do you want to be reconverted to Hinduism?

An April 7 hearing will consider the All India Christian Council's request to stop the surveys.

Elsewhere in India, the trial for the murder of missionary Graham Staines and his two sons continues. Earlier this week, 23-year-old security guard Mahendra Hembram said he killed the Australians but that the other defendants, including alleged ringleader Dara Singh, were innocent. (Hebram made a similar confession in February 2002.) Three of the other defendants said yesterday that they had no part in burning the Staineses to death.

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