Is religious conversion a criminal issue?

Addressing cases of incentivised conversion will require a holistic approach

December 05, 2021 12:46 am | Updated July 06, 2022 12:22 pm IST

Archbishop of Bangalore and president of the All Karnataka United Christian Forum Peter Machado.

Archbishop of Bangalore and president of the All Karnataka United Christian Forum Peter Machado.

T he Church is against any form of incentivised conversions. Even in the case of inter-religious marriages registered under the Special Marriage Act, the non-Christian partner is counselled to practise his or her own religion. There is no compulsion to convert to Christianity as religious tolerance is a part of Indian ethos. However, if there are cases of incentivised conversion, is criminal law the solution?

In an address to the All Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights (AKUCFHR) on November 19, Peter Machado, the Archbishop of Bangalore, said it was a sin to force anyone to convert. Any conversion had to be from the heart as the Church wanted to increase the quality and not quantity of its faithful.

In a letter to the Karnataka Chief Minister, Dr. Machado says, “Thousands of schools, colleges and hospitals are run and managed by Christian community across the State. When lakhs of students are graduating from these institutions year after year and thousands of patients irrespective of caste, creed or colour receive the best medical attention from our hospitals and care centres, let the government prove that even one of them has ever been influenced, compelled or coerced to change his or her religion.”

It is noteworthy that L.K. Advani, Vasundhara Raje, Pratap Simha, S. Jaishankar, Smriti Irani, J.P. Nadda and Piyush Goyal are senior leaders of the BJP who had obtained their education from Christian institutions.

On religious conversions, the Pew Research Centre (PRC) makes a few observations: “An overall pattern of stability in the share of religious groups is accompanied by little net gain from movement into, or out of, most religious groups. Among Hindus, for instance, any conversion out of the group is matched by conversion into the group. Nationally, the vast majority of former Hindus who are now Christian belong to Scheduled Castes (48%), Scheduled Tribes (14%) or Other Backward Classes (26%). Nearly half of converts to Christianity (47%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Scheduled Castes in India, compared with 20% of the overall population who perceive this level of discrimination against Scheduled Castes. Still, relatively few converts say they, personally, have faced discrimination due to their caste in the last 12 months (12%).”

Root causes

If there are cases of incentivised conversions, the solution lies in addressing the root issues: ending discrimination, providing high quality and free education to the poor and disenfranchised, improving access and quality of free health facilities and medicines, improving nourishment and providing adequate employment opportunities to all. This would automatically address the issue of violent extremism prevalent in some parts of the country. Violence, in thought, word or deed, cannot be solved with more violence. Though the proposed anti-conversion Bill is considered oppressive and Christians are being physically attacked by fringe elements, the Christian community is firmly resolved in its service to society through love and shall continue to pray for the political leadership.

Are there other conditions that we Indians need to reflect upon? The study by the PRC with a sample of 22,975 Hindus, 3,336 Muslims, 1,782 Sikhs, 1,011 Christians, 719 Buddhists and 109 Jains, points out the following: “religious groups generally see themselves as different from each other; stopping inter-religious marriage is a high priority; substantial minorities would not accept followers of other religions as neighbours.” The study also observed that caste is a dividing factor across religions.

The late Justice Leila Seth pointed out in her TEDx talk that the early implementation of the anti-dowry laws only made the public display of dowry disappear but eradicating dowry required a change in attitudes and mindset. Addressing cases of incentivised conversion would require a holistic approach.

In a world that is growing in anger, hate, selfishness, greed, isolation and apathy, Christians do want to convert people to love, compassion, kindness, openness, empathy and selflessness, which are visible through actions. While these are human values, Christians value them as the basis of their lives. The Constitution being the guiding book of all Indians, Dr. Machado expressed complete faith in Constitutional values and the Judiciary.

(With inputs from Fr. Faustine L. Lobo, Secretary, AKUCFHR)

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