10 pastors are in jail for leading a children's camp: How India's anti-conversion laws are targeting Christians

Three months ago, 10 Indian Christian pastors and their colleagues were arrested and charged with cruelty, kidnapping and forced conversion of children.

Police stopped the group of religious leaders travelling with more than 60 children as they were en route to a summer camp in Madhya Pradesh state on May 23. The pastors' lawyers insist all parents had consented for their children to take part in the Christian camp. 

Alliance Defending FreedomThe children were detained for three days before being released to their parents.

So why do all 10 remain in custody, and what does the case show about the plight of Christians in some parts of India?

According to David Robin, a lawyer with the religious freedom charity ADF International, the case is precedent-setting because the prosecution continues despite clear consent from the parents.

'The root of the case is the allegation of conversion. However all the parents have stated that they are followers of Christ so how can the pastors be guilty of converting them or their children?,' he says in an interview with Christian Today.

'The case is important because innocent Christians are being punished for a crime they have not committed. This case will raise awareness on the unfair treatment of religious minorities in India and will hopefully help reinforcing the constitutional right to religious freedom.'

Robin says a spate of anti-conversion laws, already in force in six states, as well as the government's laissez-faire attitude to mob violence, has fuelled a steady rise in attacks on Christians.

'The anti-conversion laws regulate religious conversions and require that every religious conversion be investigated by the state to ascertain if there is any force, fraud or allurement. The state becomes the final arbiter of whether my faith is genuine,' he tells Christian Today.

'Furthermore, as these terms are poorly defined, they often lead to unnecessary harassment of Christians who are practising and propagating their faith.'

According to ADF International's Deputy Director, Paul Coleman, this incident was part of a trend in an 'increasingly hostile climate towards religious minorities'.

He says: 'Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. The international community needs to wake up to what is happening in India.'

Persecution watchdog Open Doors has monitored the steady rise of mistreatment of Christians India in its annual World Watch List. Now ranked the 15<sup>th worst country in the world to be a Christian, India is the highest it has ever been on the influential scale.

CEO Lisa Pearce says: 'There is a clear pattern of rising religious intolerance across the Indian sub-continent, which affects many millions of Christians.

She adds: 'Religious nationalists attempt to forcibly convert people to the dominant faith of their nation, often turning to violence when community discrimination and non-violent oppression do not succeed in imposing their religious beliefs on minority Christians.'

It comes after Compassion, a major Christian charity was forced to leave the country accused of proselytism, abandoning more than 50 projects and around 145,000 children.

Robin says Christian groups should insist on written consent from parents before any work with children but also warns this is 'no guarantee'.

'The most important response however must be to foster greater understanding between religious communities. The mistrust that is being generated must be countered with greater transparency and opportunities for interaction.'

He adds: 'We need to bring persecution in front of the courts and guarantee justice to religious minorities. In India, every faith group is allowed to spread their beliefs. This is not wishful thinking but a constitutional right. We need to advocate for it and make sure that this basic human right is embraced by the political elites as well as by the public.

'The Indian state must ensure that no one is targeted for their faith.'

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