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BosNewsLife (12/15/05) – The government of India’s eastern state of Jharkhand says it is introducing an anti-conversion law “to protect the culture and identity” of “tribal people,” despite concern it will encourage persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, BosNewsLife established Thursday, December 15.

Chief Minister Arjun Munda of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) announced his plans for the controversial legislation during a rally of tribal people in the state capital Ranchi last Sunday, December 11, reported the Indo-Asian News Service (AINS).

Tribal people are India ’s original inhabitants, and nearly one-third of the state’s predominantly Hindu population still belongs to tribal groups, each with its own customs and language, experts say.

Munda did not indicate when he wants to introduce the anti-conversion law in the parliament of Jharkhand, the 6th Indian state to enact such a bill.

Under anti-conversion laws already in force in the Indian states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh, priests can be imprisoned or fined for performing a “ceremony for conversion” without prior permission from authorities and for “contravening” other “provisions” of the legislation.

Punishment can also be imposed when someone voluntarily decides to change his or her religion without previous permission from a local administration. Gujarat state passed an anti-conversion law in March 2003, but the government has not yet formulated rules under the legislation. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa repealed that state’s Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion law in May 2004 following her party’s general election defeat.

Advocacy groups and evangelicals expressed concern over anti-conversion laws, saying preaching the Gospel to non-Christians is a crucial part of the Christian faith. “I do not feel it is appropriate to introduce such a bill. In a secular country like India everyone has the right to live on the call of his conscience,” added Enos Ekka, Jharkhand’s only Christian cabinet minister, criticizing the government’s move.

“If anybody wants to change his religion willingly he should not be prevented from doing so,” IANS quoted Ekka as saying. “People should not be bound by any law. We [my party] supported the government on the condition that no different attitude will be adopted towards Christians and Muslims,” he said. Ekka stressed the legislation would be “meaningless” as conversions were “rarely” taking place in the state.

Church leaders in the state claimed they did not have figures of conversions in the state, but the number was unlikely to exceed 20 during the last 10 years, reported the Telegraph newspaper. Missionaries suggest the number could be much higher.

Bishop Vincent Barwa, Auxiliary Bishop of the Ranchi diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, told IANS an anti-conversion law would negatively impact his church’s activities. “The government cannot stop any one from converting willingly. [Chief Minister] Munda himself is not a tribal. In my view there is no need for such law in the state,” he reportedly said.

Church leaders also explained they were already facing a severe shortage of priests and were finding it difficult to staff existing churches and parishes. “Where is the manpower required to preach and convert people?” they asked in published remarks.

The Congress Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Left parties also criticized the move. Sudhir Mahto, an opposition leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha party, also flayed the government’s decision. “BJP’s real face has surfaced. Now the party wants to create social tension in the name of religion. Development has taken backseat in the state,” Mahto told IANS.

However BJP president L.K. Advani reportedly welcomed the announcement. Lawmaker “should pass a bill banning religious conversions in the entire country. But as the present [central Indian] government is not interested, Jharkhand’s bold initiatives are welcome,” The Telegraph, a local newspaper, quoted Advani as saying.

State Minister Madhu Koda said he also would “support the bill. In a secular country there should not be any conversions.” Koda is one of the five independent members of legislative assembly supporting the BJP government in the state.

“Religious conversions should not take place by alluring people with money and social work,” said Chandra Prakash Chaudhary, another independent state minister. There are almost 1.1 million Christians among Jharkhand’s roughly 27 million people, according to a 2001 Census.