The use of anti-conversion laws in India to target Christians has long been recognised by Open Doors researchers as a source of persecution. This has now been highlighted in a letter by the UN to the Indian government, which has been made public after they failed to respond to it.
Even gathering to read the Bible can bring the risk of false accusations, adding to the fears of many Christians in India
Human rights experts from the UN have written to the Indian government, warning them that anti-conversion laws are a ‘tool of persecution’.
In the letter, the UN Rapporteurs for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Nazila Ghanea, and for Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes, warn that the laws continue to be used as ‘a tool of persecution by those who are genuinely opposed to religious tolerance… by creating further polarisation and generating an atmosphere of fear among religious minorities’. The laws are currently active in 11 of India’s 28 states, with some calling for a nationwide anti-conversion law.
The letter was originally sent to the Indian government on 16 August. After they failed to respond within a 60-day window, it has since been made public.
In theory, anti-conversion laws are meant to prevent attempts to convert people away from Hinduism through ‘misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by fraudulent means’. But in reality, they’re often used to harass and intimidate religious minorities for simply expressing their faith, such as Christians having a prayer meeting.
“Several reports of prayer meetings, religious services being interrupted by angry mobs accusing the worshippers to be involved in forced religious conversions have been recorded,” says the letter. “These cases contribute to creating an atmosphere of fear for religious minorities and climate of impunity for vigilantes who feel entitled to disrupt peaceful religious services, intimidate and use violence without repercussions.”
"These cases contribute to creating an atmosphere of fear for religious minorities..." Letter TO INDIAN GOVERNMENT
The letter references a report by the Indian advocacy group Article 14, which investigated 101 police reports filed in Uttar Pradesh and found that the majority are based on complaints by ‘Hindutva outfits using the law to harass Christians’. Hindutva is an extremist Hindu ideology that disregards Indian Christians (and other religious minorities) as true Indians because they have allegiances that lie outside India, and asserts the country should be purified of their presence.
Other concerns were also noted in letter, including the vague wording of the laws, with words such as ‘misrepresentation’ and ‘allurement’ open to broad interpretation by accusers and the authorities. It means that, when cases go to trial, they tend to fall flat because the prosecutor is unable to substantiate the charges with evidence. This is what happened recently, when a court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that a pastor and his wife had not committed a crime by distributing Bibles. Conviction rates for alleged forced conversion are low, but can cause great disruption and trauma to believers’ lives.
The letter also noted that a ‘general prohibition on conversion’ is a contravention of international standards on freedom of religion or belief, whilst the burden of proof lies with the person allegedly accused of causing the conversion – for example, a pastor who leads someone to Jesus after personally evangelising to them.
“This intervention is to be welcomed,” says Lisa Gentile, Senior Advocacy Officer for Open Doors International. “These laws are completely unnecessary. They are being used been used by Hindu nationalist supporters to settle personal scores and promote their own agenda. And to roll them out any further would cause further fear and misery.”
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