In India becoming a Christian can be pretty tough. In a country where being Indian means being Hindu, the room for other religious beliefs is decreasing. And for many, the journey to faith in Jesus is becoming harder and harder. New ‘anti-conversion laws’ aim to protect people from being forced to convert to another religion, but in reality, the laws are used to accuse and discriminate against Christians.
India has a Hindu majority (72.5% of the population) and indigenous religious movements such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism have been present for centuries. Since the 1990s, Hindu extremists have gained momentum, putting forward the narrative that Muslims (14.4% of the population) and Christians (4.8%) are not true Indians. Anti-conversion laws are used as a weapon in this fight. While the wording of the law in each state varies, they generally state that ‘no person should convert or attempt to convert, either directly or indirectly, any person from one religion to another by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means’.
New versions of anti-conversion laws were passed in Madya Pradesh on 8 March and Utter Pradesh a couple of weeks earlier – these laws are additions to the growing number of similar legislations that restrict the rights of Christian and Muslim minorities in many Indian states – despite there being no data about forced conversions taking place. And of course forced conversions are wrong. But, in practice, these laws are used to attack to make false accusations of coercion against those who have genuinely become Christians from a Hindu background and those who have told them the good news about Jesus.
The hostility that is leading to the rise in anti-conversion laws is something 21-year-old Gagan* is very aware of. He’s the only Christian in his family and his community.
“I first heard of the name Jesus Christ from some of my Christian friends while I was living in my school hostel away from my village,” remembers Gagan. “During my final year of high school, I attended a youth camp and there I accepted Jesus Christ and decided to follow Him.”
Gagan was luckier than many Christians from a Hindu background, because his family didn’t reject him. “Their opposition mellowed when they saw that I had become a better person after accepting Christ,” says Gagan. “My family themselves, however, refused to come along with me in my journey of Christian faith. The reason is: they live in fear of society.”
Gagan understands where they’re coming from. “Their fear is very real for me also, because to accept Jesus Christ and to follow Him means becoming an outcast from the community.
“I fear for the safety of my parents, because their son is following a different faith from them. The general outlook on Christ in my community is that He is a foreign god and everyone who follows Christianity is a traitor to our original religion.”
Open Doors partners in India were able to financially support Gagan in his education, thanks to the gifts and prayers of Open Doors supporters. In his case, his family couldn’t afford it – for other isolated believers, even if their family have the resources, they are denied help.
Open Doors partner Heena (named changed for security reasons) is worried about the news laws.
“These new laws are harsher than their previous versions, increasing the amount of money offenders have to pay and lengthening jail time. These laws are problematic for many reasons, but one glaring reason is because they’re incredibly vague. They use words like ‘allurement’ or ‘coercion’ as things they say they’re trying to protect against, but they don’t define what those mean.
“In practice, the laws are used to intimidate and restrict even the peaceful exercise of religion for non-Hindus. They create a culture of intolerance towards religious minorities – Christian and Muslims specifically.”
And what’s more, is that the anti-conversion laws don’t seem to apply to those who have chosen to follow Jesus but are pressured to go back to Hinduism. There is far more evidence of family or community members forcing Christians or Muslims from a Hindu background to ‘re-convert’ than there is of forced Christian conversion – but it is not an offence. In the eyes of Indian lawmakers, it is a return to the religion of the fatherland. Even coerced conversions to Hinduism are apparently considered something to celebrate.
Heena is also worried about the impact of these laws on the church – specifically, relating to violent attacks. “These laws have made the church in India more vulnerable,” she says. “Because of this set of laws, people just barge into churches and the churches live in fear.
“There are so many instances where churches have gathered, and angry mobs have broken in and they chased the Christians out of the community… Professing the fact that you believe in Jesus is so risky.”
In spite of this, courageous believers in India are remaining faithful. Heena adds: “They say what they have found in Jesus is what they’ve been searching for all their lives. They say that they can’t leave Jesus. I haven’t met anyone who has wanted to deny Christ!”
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