For Immediate Release
Indian Untouchables Dare to Publicly Profess Christianity
Nagpur, Maharashtra State (October 17, 2006) The Washington-DC based human rights group, International Christian Concern (ICC) www.www.persecution.org witnessed hundreds of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) from across India publicly declaring their commitment to Christ in the face of Hindu extremism this weekend. As part of World Religious Freedom Day, Christians held an unprecedented mass baptism ceremony in the presence of the media in the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra state on October 14.
The baptism ceremony was part of a huge Dalit rally held amid heavy police presence on the occasion of World Religious Freedom Day at Kasturchand Park, only a few kilometers from the headquarters of the militant Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The rally was organized to mark the golden jubilee of the conversion of India s greatest Dalit leader and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and to protest the various anti-conversion laws.
During the rally, Christian leaders led scores of new converts to a garden-fountain-turned baptism pool inside the park as a Christian band played trumpets and beat drums to guide their proud and confident steps. The Christian leaders included Dr. Joseph DSouza, international president of the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) and national president of the All India Christian Council (AICC); Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC; and evangelical Bishop Moses Swamidoss.
According to the AICC figures, of the more than 5,000 Dalits at the rally, 528 were baptized.
The baptism ceremony was led by the Rev. Swamidoss, a Dalit bishop; the Rev. Kumarswamy, south India leader of the AICC; the Rev Paothang Haokip, general secretary of the Good Shepherd Community Church; and the Rev. Moses Parmar, north India leader of the AICC. Christians gathered to witness the historic event sang hymns to encourage and support the new converts. A banner put up at the site read, Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.
Of those baptized, 75 were from Gujarat state, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi passed a bill on September 19 to resurrect the dormant anti-conversion law which now singles out conversions to Christianity and Islam as requiring prior permission.
I believe in Jesus Christ in my heart and I know Him personally. This is why I openly took baptism [sic] today, said Sudha Ben, a middle-aged Dalit woman from Valsad district of Gujarat.
Even my daughter took baptism [sic] and we are very happy about it, added a smiling Ben.
DSouza said, Hindu fundamentalists allege that Dalits convert to Christianity due to allurement and force. I challenge the accusers to come and interrogate the converts and find out if we have forced or allured them.
Dayal commented that the ceremony was a slap on the face of Modi [sic], who thinks he can curb the religious freedom of Dalits by enacting a law against conversions.
Seventeen people from Chhattisgarh took baptism [sic] because they personally believe in Jesus, Gladwin Talan, a pastor from Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, told ICC.
He added that the reason behind their conversion was not merely the atrocities they faced as Dalits, but their conviction about Jesus Christ.
The BJP in Chhattisgarh made their existing anti-conversion law stricter on August 3.
Similarly, 70 of those who were baptized were from Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP made their anti-conversion law more stringent on July 25.
As the baptism ceremony was taking place, Dalits from Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds tried to burn an effigy of Modi. The police, however, forcibly took away the effigy and prevented the crowd from setting it on fire. In response, the angry crowd shouted slogans against Modi and other chief ministers who have amended or enacted anti-conversion laws in their respective states.
Earlier in the day, Christian and Dalit leaders, including DSouza, Dayal and Dr. Udit Raj, chairman of the All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Organizations (AICSC/STO), burned a copy of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Amendment Bill to protest its restrictions on religious freedom [picture below].
Anti-conversion laws are in force in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh, while similar bills are awaiting enforcement in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The Rev. Madhu Chandra of the AICC said Christian leaders were finding it difficult to help even a person who is ill or a victim of an accident due to the ease with which proselytization charges can be levied against them under the anti-conversion laws.
Christians cannot even carry out their normal services like education and health care because the moment they try to do so, Hindu activists pounce up on them with the charges of conversion, he explained.
The anti-conversion laws provide for penal action against those found guilty of conversion by force, allurement or unfair means. Rights activists and leaders of minority communities complain that these terms are inadequately defined, and allow Hindu fundamentalist groups to lodge false complaints against Christians and Muslims to harass them.
These laws also require all conversions to be reported to the proper district authorities. Some of these legislations also make it mandatory for the religious priest and prospective convert to seek prior permission for conversion despite the fact that this violates the Indian Constitution, which protects religious freedom.
The rally was organized jointly by the AICC and AICSC/STO and observed by 25 international visitors from the U.S. , the U.K. , Canada and Nigeria , including Nancy Ricks, director of the Colorado-based DFN, Rosemary Morris of the U.K.-based rights organization Friends of India, Trent Ballard, Eldon Arnold, Chenenye Obamu and Michelle Burnette.
U.S.-based Ballard said, We are pleased to be here to express our solidarity with the Dalit community. We want to tell our friends in the West the story of how India reacts and responds to the Dalits and their call for religious freedom.
During the rally, Raj led the conversion of hundreds of Hindu Dalits to Buddhism, following in the footsteps of Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism along with thousands of his followers before his death in 1956 as a way out of the oppressive caste-system in Hinduism.
Raj, former government official and known as Ram Raj before his conversion, claims that he has led more than one million Hindu Dalits to Buddhism since 2001, which was when he became Buddhist along with hundred of others in New Delhi.
Hindu fundamentalists normally do not react strongly against Dalits converting to Buddhism because they allege that Buddhism is a part of Hinduism, but they do launch violent attacks if they hear of conversions to Christianity. Numerous Dalits come to Nagpur every year and convert to Buddhism.
Raj said he was expecting about 100,000 people to attend the rally, but Mayawati, a woman Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh state, took away the crowd by holding a parallel rally in the city.
Dr. Ambedkar, who spent his life fighting against the discrimination system of Hindu untouchability and the Hindu caste system, had a big movement of religious freedom that was felt only in India but the time has come to globalize it, said Albert Lael of the AICC in a statement.
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