Indian Catholic leaders welcome anti-conversion bill rejection

Indian Catholic leaders have welcomed the Rajasthan Governor's refusal to approve a bill that they say would restrict missionary activities in the north-western Indian state.

UCA News reports that the Governor Pratibha Patil returned the bill that the state legislature passed in April despite protests from opposition parties and Christian groups, who said it would curtail people's religious freedom.

In returning it, Ms Patil, whose assent is needed for a bill to become law, reportedly noted that provisions of the bill would go against the religious freedom guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.

"We are happy about the governor's action. We have been trying to convince the authorities about the repressive and draconian nature of the legislation," said Bishop Oswald Lewis of Jaipur.

The prelate told UCA News the bill was "unjust" and could have been "used against Christians at any time." He explained, "We could have been punished even for the charity work we do among the poor and tribals on a charge of an attempt at conversion by use of allurement."

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People's Party) now rules the state, where Christians form only 0.1 percent of 57 million people. The Rajasthan State Freedom of Religion Bill 2006 stipulates a jail term for those converting a person by "force" or "allurement."

In introducing the bill, the government said it had noted the involvement of some people in "unlawful conversion from one religion to another by allurement or by fraudulent means or forcibly."

Various Church groups affiliated through Rajasthan Christian Fellowship protested against the bill and presented a memorandum to the governor asking her not to sign it into law.

Ms Patil reportedly advised the state government to get the bill cleared by the Indian president prior to sending it to her a second time for approval. The governor is the president's representative in a state, and the office is apolitical. The Constitution allows governors to return bills, except revenue bills, if they believe that some provisions in them violate the constitution.

Rajasthan is trying to become the sixth state to have a law restricting religious conversions. The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa already have such laws.

Fr Raymond Coelho along with all three Catholic bishops of the state and representatives of the Church of North India, met in Ms Patil on 27 April to ask her not to sign the bill.

Media reports say the state government might soon resubmit the bill, after legal "corrections," for the governor's reconsideration.

Indian Catholic leaders welcome rejection of bill limiting missioners (Catholic Online/Union of Catholic Asian News/Catholic Online 23/5/06)

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24 May 2006