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Madhya Pradesh To Restrict Right To Convert

by Nirmala Carvalho

7/21/2006 India (AsiaNews) The state government is considering amending its Freedom of Religion law. Under the new rules, converts would have to apply to the authorities a month in advance. The Catholic Church and Christians are worried by rules that are ridiculous in a democratic state.

Proposed amendments to existing legislation on religious freedom before Madhya Pradesh’s state assembly might make the law more restrictive if their backers had their way, this according to reliable sources.

The draft changes to existing law are currently under review. The law, which dates back to 1968, is being reassessed to conform to a similar law already in place in the state of Orissa. Sources told AsiaNews that the proposed changes would affect how would-be converts inform the authorities about their decision.

Under the new rules all parties directly or indirectly involved in the process would have to communicate their intentions to a local district judge a month ahead of the religious ceremony. The official would then be mandated to make an inquiry into the conversion application, calling on the police if necessary.

Only if the magistrate is satisfied that the conversion was not done under duress or by deceit, would the applicant be allowed to undergo the ceremony. Although penalties for violators are not expected to change (12 months in prison, a fine of a thousand rupees, or both), demands have been made to increase jail time to 36 months and fines to 100,000 rupees.

Indian Christians and human rights activists have slammed the proposed changes for violating freedom of conscience, which is guaranteed by India ’s constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which India is a signatory.

“The proposal is not only anti-Christian,” as some observers have pointed out, “but it will disproportionately affect scheduled castes like the Dalits and scheduled tribes who will be denied a life of dignity and the freedom to choose” their faith.

“This is a grave injustice being done to Christians. [. . .] We have never, ever, converted anyone through force or enticement,” he said.

“The terms of allurement and forced conversions are so vague. This only protects and defends those who perpetrate attacks against Christians.”

Similarly, the Global Council of Indian Christians has come out against the proposed changes to the law. Its chairman, Sajan George, told AsiaNews that it “is ridiculous to demand from citizens in a democratic country that they ask for government permission to choose his/her faith. The state should simply drop the bill altogether.”

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