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30 Pastors arrested for singing Christmas Carols in Madhya Pradesh


Image of arrested priests and seminarians

In excess of 30 priests and seminarians (priest novices) who were singing Christmas carols in a village near Satna Town in Madhya Pradesh were arrested yesterday (Friday 15th December 2017), after a Hindu nationalist group named Bajrang Dal accused them of forcibly converting Hindus.

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A Catholic Priest (not arrested) spoke with BACA, he said:

"A group of students training to become priests was moving around Satna town, visiting Christian institutions and singing carols.

"Some 15 km from here in Dara Kalan village church they were getting ready for the Christmas celebrations, when a group of people attacked them, accusing them of carrying out religious conversions."

The Hindu group raised slogans and called up the Civil Lines Police Station. All 32 carollers, accompanied by two priests, were taken to the police station.

Many of the victims who have been arrested have described extrajudicial violence by members of Bajrang Dal, whilst being detained at Civil Lines Police Station in police custody, they say that police officers watched, in some cases goaded the rioters and even joined in the beatings that the priests and seminarians were subjected to. Members of Bajrang Dal and the police have however denied the allegation as is customary in these situations.

A further 8 priests who travelled to the local police station on Friday were set upon by the activists of Bajrang Dal, while their car was set ablaze before them. The priests were also arrested by local police and were detained with those originally arrested.

Police who say they have registered a case under IPC Section 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance) in connection with the arson attack, have set free all 40 of the victims after pressure was applied by some local Politicians. However, no Hindu men were arrested for the crime of burning the car. Police say that they cannot find any evidence that links any of the men with the burning of the vehicle..

The violence initially erupted after a resident of Bhumkahar village named Dharmendra Dohar (21 yrs), alleged that missionaries were active in his village for the last two years, and that he had been given 5,000 rupees, a cross and a Bible” after he took a 'dip in a pond' to change his faith. His allegations resulted in the booking of five of the priests involved under Sections 153-B and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Already the the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has denied all allegations of forced conversion, and said that 30 seminarians and two priests from the Theological College were detained by police when they were conducting a carol singing programme. They say that the Carol concert is a very routine practice that has been held for Christmas for at least the last 30 years.

Madhya Pradesh is one of five states in India that outlaws 'Forced Conversions' and requires people who leave Hinduism to first apply for conversion through their local Government. ON completion of approved papers conversion is permissible but administration officers make the process extremely difficult, challenge those who convert and the outreach ministry unnecessary and are known to enact false forced conversions claims themselves.

Bajrang Dal is a militant organisation that forms the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). It is a member of the RSS family of organisations.The ideology of the organisation is based on Hindutva (Hindu nationalism),

Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Asian Christian Association, said:

"This alarming incident so near to Christmas evidence the deepening level of animosity for minorities in India under the Narendra Modi regime.

The singing of carols which has at least a 30 years history in Satna has always been an enjoyable and accepted tradition in the area, till now.

"These arrests and the obvious pariah status Christians are experiencing more often across large swathes of India will impact negatively on their right to freedom of religion, rights that are enshrined in Article 18 of the UN convention for Human Rights - a convention that India has ratified.

"Pastors have suffered beatings from maniacal rioters yet not one of the perpetrators of violence has been arrested. Christians however have been targeted with criminal charges by a police force as zealous as the extremists they are meant to be protecting vulnerable minorities from.

"It is obvious that these priests and seminarians are innocent and the only just action would be to set them free, without charges. Mr Modi's Government will have to stop ignoring the increasing nationalism in his country and put in place mechanisms to restore community harmony or he will tarnish further India's increasingly poor human rights record.

"With the new freedoms and authority that Hindu nationalist groups are able to exhibit in India, one can only assume this situation will worsen and multiply. Such a trajectory in India will stifle progress for a nation that has achieved so much in the last few decades."

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