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09/11/2019 India (International Christian Concern) – On August 31, the legislative assembly of Himachal Pradesh, a state located in northern India, approved the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2019. Under this new law, individuals who covert others from one religion to another by “fraudulent means” could face a jail sentence of five to seven years depending on the identity of the convert.

Church leaders in India have spoken out against the passage of the new law as similar “anti-conversion laws” have been widely abused against Christians. These leaders fear that the new law will be used to harass and imprison Christians under false charges of forced conversions.

Anti-conversion laws are a tool to harass vulnerable Christians,” Sajan K. George, a Christian activist in India, told Barnabus Fund. “Anti-conversion laws discriminate against religious minorities. They can plant seeds of sectarian suspicion among communities that have lived together in a peaceful manner and can be used against the weakest in society, in particular Dalits, women and children.

In addition to criminalizing fraudulent conversions, the new law also decreed that any marriage done for the sole purpose of religious conversion would be declared void. The new law also requires that individuals seeking to change their religion must give one-month notice to the government of their intention to convert before converting.

Radical Hindu nationalists frequently use the specter of mass religious conversions to pass laws and regulations that limit religious freedom. These nationalists accuse Indian Christians of converting poor Hindus to Christianity in mass by fraudulent means.

However, India’s own population data does not support this conspiracy of mass conversions to Christianity. In 1951, the first census after independence, Christians made up 2.3% of India’s population. According to the 2011 census, the most recent census data available, Christians still make up 2.3% of the population.

In states where similar anti-conversion laws are currently enacted, including Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand, they are widely abused. Radical nationalists abuse these laws by falsely accusing Christians of forcefully converting individuals to Christianity to justify harassment and assault. Local police often overlook violence perpetrated against Christians due to the false accusation of forced conversions.

To date, no individual has been convicted of forced conversions in India. This is in spite of the fact that some of the anti-conversion laws have been on the books since 1967.

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