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Nuns Arrested On Conversion Charges Released On Bail After Two Days’ Detention

ICC Note: Police arrest two nuns after they are accused of forcing girls to participate in prayers at their school that does not require non-Catholics to participate in prayers.

7/31/07 India (UCAN) — A court in Orissa state granted bail for two Catholic nuns on July 30, two days after police arrested and jailed them on charges of engaging in “forceful conversion” in the eastern Indian state.

Sisters Prema Thomas, 62, and Mary Sebastian, 52, were charged with using force to convert girls at Vijaya Tribal Girls Hostel, a facility they run.

The hostel is in Baghmara village, Mayurbhanj district. Baripada, the district headquarters, is 1,500 kilometers southeast of New Delhi . The nuns belong to the St. Anne congregation, based in Bangalore , southern India .

Police arrested them on July 28 based on complaints from parents of two girls in the hostel. The parents alleged the nuns forced the girls, aged 14 and 11, to join Catholic prayers in the hostel in an attempt to convert them.

Father Isaac Puthenangady, chancellor of Balasore diocese, under which the hostel functions, countered that the girls “had been deployed by the anti-Christian elements to corner the missioners.” He explained to UCA News that both girls joined the hostel this academic year, which started in June.

“We have been running the hostel for the last 30 years and there was never any complaint of forcible conversion,” the priest said, attributing the current incident to Hindu fanatic elements in the state.

The case against the nuns is registered under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, Police Superintendent Sanjay Kumar Singh told media on July 28. Under the law, any attempt to convert a person using force or fraudulent methods is punishable with a jail term.

The Baripada district magistrate, Mundarani Mishra, granted the nuns bail on the conditions that they do not tamper with evidence related to the case and do not leave the area of the court’s jurisdiction without its permission. Other conditions set for the bail included promises to cooperate with the investigation and to not indulge in conversion-related activities.

The nuns were not granted bail earlier due to fear of sectarian violence and because “the police had not presented the papers,” Father Puthenangady said. He added that “a lot of external pressure” was needed to arrange bail.

Most of the 80 girls in the hostel are tribal villagers. They are not required to attend the daily Mass and prayers, Father Puthenangady explained. Diocesan priests also run another hostel nearby, which houses around 100 boys, he continued, adding that the missioners never compel students to join prayers.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, in a letter to Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, asked that the government “ensure the security of the Christians” and provide protection to the institutions they run in the state.

The “communal forces have been victimizing the Christians and falsely accusing them of promoting conversions in Mayurbhanj District of Orissa since long (ago),” noted the July 30 letter signed by conference spokesperson Father Babu Joseph.

The district hit international headlines when fanatics burned to death Australian missioner Graham Stuart Staines and his two sons, aged 7 and 9, in January 1999.

Balasore diocesan Father Arul Doss, 35, was killed by assailants wielding arrows in September 1999 in Jambani village of the same district. Hindu fanatics were arrested in both cases.

The area has recorded several other crimes against Christians and Muslims, including murders allegedly committed by extremists who believe India should become a Hindu theocratic state.