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ICC Note: Recently, the leader of Arunachal Pradesh, located in northeast India, announced his intention to repeal the state’s anti-forced conversion law. These laws, officially named Freedom of Religion Acts, purport to regulate religious conversion and criminalize forced conversions. In fact, in states where these laws exist, they are heavily abused against the Christian community. To promote religious freedom, India must take steps to repeal these, and other, discriminatory laws.

08/02/2018 India (Washington Times) – Last week, the State Department made history by hosting the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The gathering — which brought together hundreds of religious leaders, foreign ministers and representatives from civil society and international organizations — is perhaps the most significant event in the name of religious freedom in the past 50 years. It’s also an important reminder of the essential role religious freedom plays in protecting democracy.

Coming from India, a country known for its long and beautiful religious history as well as its present religiously-incited tensions, I’m keenly aware of why faith leaders and governments must cooperate in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding. Religious intolerance, at both the civil and political levels, always leads to discrimination and oppression, as is the case with India’s anti-conversion laws.

Recently, the small state of Arunachal Pradesh became the subject of national debate when its chief minister unexpectedly announced he would repeal the state’s 40-year-old Freedom of Religion Act — a bill enacted in several Indian states that prevents religious conversion through “forcible” or “fraudulent” means.

According to Chief Minister Pema Kandhu, the law does the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. Instead of serving as a measure to protect Arunachal Pradesh’s indigenous religious communities from forced or fraudulent conversions, the law has been weaponized to oppress the freedom of religion of other communities. “The law could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians,” the chief minister said.

As is usual in India, not a day had gone by before the announcement drew heavy criticism. Local tribal group leaders slammed the announcement as “minority appeasement” and an attack on their indigenous culture. The reaction is not unlike what led to the formation of the act in the first place: Misplaced fear that other religious groups, like Christians and Muslims, want to force people into their faiths.

Despite the misunderstandings and controversy, repealing the act ahead of the upcoming general elections is an opportunity for Prime Minister Modi’s BJP party to break the stereotype that it cannot be a secular party and allow for religious freedom. It would be a fulfillment of the prime minister’s promise — which he has announced on the global stage — to be committed to religious freedom.

Doing so would also acknowledge that Indian Christians are as patriotic as any other Indian and are fervent in their commitment to Indian nationalism.

India is living through an intensely politically charged time. Everyone is campaigning for his personal vision of India. In fact, India has been gripped by such growing paranoia that some groups have been labeled as anti-national simply because they are a minority religion. Yet in most cases the accusation does not hold water. This has been the case with Christians.

Christianity’s contribution to national development and every section of public life and government, including the armed forces, far outstrips their population size. Moreover, the Christian community in India is not anti-national, anti-Hindu or anti- any political party. Their relationship with the Hindu community, and for that matter Muslims and other religious groups and communities, is very cordial across India.

For too long now colonial-era propaganda — which claims Christians are involved in forced and fraudulent conversions — has been used to demonize the Indian Christian community and set-up anti-conversion laws that heavily target Christians.

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For interviews with William Stark, ICC’s Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: [email protected].