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Christian groups have welcomed an announcement by a chief minister of a state in north-east India that he will ensure that a law preventing conversions from one faith to another is repealed. Pema Khandu, a Buddhist who heads the nationalist BJP-led state government in Arunachal Pradesh, told an audience of more than 2,000 Catholics that he would have the 1978 Freedom of Religion Act repealed in the next session of the Legislative Assembly. He said the law, which, in sharp contrast to its name, places heavy restrictions on religious conversions, “could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians”.

In India, talk of “secularism” relates to treating all religions with equal respect, rather than the separation of religion and politics. Khandu told the audience, which included nine Catholic bishops: “Though I have been told that the law has been never implemented, in future, it could be misused by people in power.” He added: “Any misuse of the law leading to the torture of people could trigger large-scale violence in the state.” The 1978 act prohibits “conversion from one religious faith to any other by use of force, inducement or by fraudulent means”, and provides for imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of up to 10,000 rupees (US$150).

Since its enactment the proportion of Christians in the state has shot up as thousands of followers of tribal religions turn to Christianity. Khandu’s announcement was met by thunderous applause from the audience. Taw Tebin, the president of Arunchal Pradesh Catholic Association, said: “This law has always been a threat to Christians. The declaration by the chief minister is a big relief for the Christian community.” Khandu’s declaration runs contrary to the professed stance of the Hindu-nationalist BJP, of introducing these “anti-conversion laws” in states where it has gained power. It would make Arunachal Pradesh the first BJP-run state to repeal such legislation.

Khandu was addressing Catholics as part of a five-day celebration to mark ten years since the death of a lay Benedictine missionary who had trekked through the state’s remote mountain villages preaching a message of peace and urging Arunachal’s warring tribes to forgive. Henry Gaikwad, from Pune in western India, also baptised thousands. But because missionaries were banned from entering the state when he began his work in 1981, he initially entered it disguised as a carpenter or butcher. Khandu described Prem Bhai as a “brother of love” respected by all, local animists, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, because of the harmony and love he preached.

Prem Bhai played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity in the state.

In the 2011 census, the number of Christians doubled in the previous decade and reached nearly 30% of the state’s population of 1.4 million. Christians now make up the largest single faith group, ahead of Hindus and followers of tribal religions. After the 2011 census figures were finally released showing the Hindu population had fallen slightly, while Muslim and Christian populations had grown, some Hindu-nationalist groups hit out at Muslims and Christians for evangelising Hindus. Since Narendra Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, there has been a steady increase in violence against religious minorities, often after accusations of “forced conversions”.

Source: World Watch Monitor