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Communalism

'Concocted Charges': Christians in UP’s Fatehpur Allege Harassment Over 'Forced Conversion' Claims

Ten Christians are currently in jail and arrest warrants have been issued against others. Members of the community say this is a targeted campaign against them by Hindutva forces.

New Delhi: Arrests of Christians in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district continue over allegations of forced conversions from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The first complaint by the Hindutva outfit was made in April this year, in the run up to Easter celebrations. Six months later, Christians allege there has been an attempt to target the community with false allegations.

Over 10 people are currently lodged in Fatehpur jail over the allegations, and warrants have been issued to arrest others.

On April 14, 2022, ahead of Easter celebrations, Maundy Thursday prayers were reportedly disrupted by a group of Hindutva activists. A group of 60-70 workers from the VHP allegedly entered the premises of the church and locked it from the outside.

Speaking to The Wire, Reverend Edwin John Wesley, general secretary and legal officer of the Evangelical Church of India (ECI), said, “During the holy service of prayers, we were all inside the church preparing for Good Friday. All of a sudden, 60-70 members of right-wing groups – a mix of members of the Bajrang Dal and the VHP – were chanting the slogan of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ and locked the church from outside. When the police came in, the Aadhaar and identity cards of the residents were verified. We were told that we will be protected and taken safely to our homes. However, worshippers were instead taken to the police station. After midnight, an FIR was registered by the police.”

The FIR, accessed by The Wire, was registered on the complaint of VHP leader Himanshu Dixit under IPC sections 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 506 (Criminal intimidation), 420 (cheating), 467 and 468 (forgery and cheating), and Sections 3 and 5 (1) of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021. The law provides for imprisonment of one to five years with a minimum fine of Rs 15,000 for forced conversions, and three to ten years of jail time for the conversion of minors and women from the SC/ST community.

Dixit’s complaint alleges the forceful conversion of Hindus had been ongoing for 34 days – part of a 40-day process.

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Speaking to The Wire, Dixit said, “I don’t have much information on what kind of activities were happening. Those living in the vicinity were giving inputs to the VHP; when we receive such information we take action on these complaints.”

When asked about what information formed the basis of the complaint, he said other members of his organisation would know better. He did not divulge any further information.

The FIR names 35 persons and 20 unknown persons, and claims that close to 90 Hindus were being forcefully converted to Christianity with the help of workers at the Broadwell hospital.

Twenty-six arrests were made in the immediate aftermath of the complaint. However, more arrests are ongoing as the police claim to have found forged Aadhaar cards used in the alleged conversion attempt.

On October 30, the Fatehpur police arrested pastor Vijay Masih of the ECI and also reportedly seized Aadhaar cards. At the beginning of November, 10 more people were reportedly arrested and booked under the provisions of the state’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, as well as Sections 506 and 153 A of the IPC.

Speaking to The Wire, Additional Superintendent of Police Annirudh Kumar said, “Currently, since the cases have been filed, those who have been labelled as wanted are being arrested; if the arrest isn’t happening then warrants are being issued against those people. Moreover, going forward, they will be declared absconding and khurki [confiscation/seizure] of their properties will be done.”

When asked about the Christian families’ allegation that these cases are concocted, the officer said, “We are investigating it, what we see currently is that an attempt was made to lure people towards conversion.”

Wesley, however, alleges that this is an attempt to target the community and the worshippers. He said, “There has never been any instance of conversion. Those who attended the service were believers and Christians by birth. …They have been attending the church for 10 years of even longer.” The police has claimed that Dalits and others from marginalised communities were offered money to convert – an allegation that Wesley rejects entirely.

Wesley pointed to Section 4 of the Anti-Conversion Act, stating, “The UP Anti Conversion law 2021 Section 4 b says very clearly that only the victim who has been converted, or an attempt has been made to convert the person, can file the case. From April 14 until now, not a single victim has come forward to say that they have been converted because of the church or the hospital. The basis of the FIR by the VHP person is flawed.”

A complaint was filed by the ECI in the State Minorities Commission, stating that members of the mob entered the church premises with sticks and rods, forcing the members of the church to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’. It reads, “Some anti-social elements have tried to create communal violence in the name of conversion, they tore the holy bible and hurt the religious sentiments of the worshippers causing them mental stress and trauma.”

The complaint was filed against Himanshu Dixit, Shankar Mishra, Anant Tiwari, Lokesh Gupta, Jitu Hyaran, Acharya Ajeet Raj and their accomplices. The complaint alleges that the police has not found any evidence which supports the version of the Hindutva activists. Yet their associates and the local police are threatening and harassing worshippers on a daily basis, saying they must vacate the church premises. “We the Christians are being targeted by Hindu fanatics for following our religion,” the complaint.

Christians in the area now say that they are now fearful in the face of arrests.

Speaking to The Wire, Yakoob Jacob, a community health coordinator at the mission hospital whose 19-year-old-son Jonathan was arrested recently, said, “We are extremely fearful that we will be picked up, we are mentally traumatised, we are crying and grieving. My child has been asking when he will be free. We are deeply worried.”

“Johnson is a student of medicine, he is currently studying nursing first year. He has a practical exam and is worried about how his future is on the line,” he added.

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Matthew Samuel, chairman of the Broadwell Hospital Society, said, “This is a plain atrocity because these prayers happen every year, but we are now being targeted. What is important to point out is that the FIR is fabricated. Sections of intimidation have been filed against us, while we were the ones being attacked by a mob. The pattern of harassment towards Christian worshippers in the narrative of forced conversion attempts has now become routine; complaints are copy-pasted and the same narrative is being used.”

Amid this, a case is currently being heard at the apex court pertaining to controlling forced religious conversions. The PIL has been filed by BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay. The plea seeks directions to take steps to control religious conversion done by the means of “intimidation” and through “gifts and monetary benefits”.

In the ongoing hearing, the Union government has stated that right to freedom of religion does not include a fundamental right to convert other people to a particular religion. It has also claimed that it is “cognisant of the menace” of alleged conversions and that the laws that “seek to control such practices are necessary to protect the cherished rights of vulnerable sections of the society including women and economically and socially backward classes.”

Moreover, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that forced conversion was a “serious menace” and a “national issue” and that in its affidavit the Union government has mentioned the relevant steps taken by certain states.

Currently, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Haryana have passed laws seeking to curb forced conversions.

The Wire previously reported that as many as 302 attacks against Christians took place in the first seven months of 2022, according to the United Christian Forum, which has collected data on the basis of distress calls it received on its helpline numbers. UCF’s data shows that the state of Uttar Pradesh has reported over 80 such instances.