By Anto Akkara
After the recent arrests of priests and a nun in India on charges that they violated the Hindu-majority country’s “anti-conversion” laws, a Catholic bishop has sent out an appeal “to storm heaven with prayers.”
Bishop Ignatius D’Souza of Bareilly in the Archdiocese of Agra issued a “prayer request” on social media Feb. 7.
“I request you to storm heaven so that all those who are dealing with this sensitive case may get enlightened by the Holy Spirit and our brothers may be released soon,” D’Souza pleaded.
In the post, he said that Father Dominic Pinto and nine Protestant lay organizers have been taken into custody on charges that they violated the anti-conversion act, which, he said, does not allow those arrested to be released on bail.
Eleven out of India’s 28 states have passed laws to criminalize forced conversions but, in practice, they have been used to prevent the practice of the Christian faith.
Pinto, director of the Lucknow Diocese’s pastoral center in northern Uttar Pradesh state, was arrested on Feb. 6 for allowing a gathering of 100 people led by evangelical pastors to take place in the Catholic center. The government of Uttar Pradesh is controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India’s population is 79.8 % Hindu, 14.2 % Muslim, and 2.3 % Christian. In Uttar Pradesh state — India’s most populous state with 2.3 million inhabitants — only .18% are Christian.
“Hindu fundamentalists barged into the center and insisted on the arrest of the priest at the police station along with the pastors while other fundamentalists even threatened the nearby convent and nuns nearby,” Father Donald D’Souza, chancellor of the Lucknow Diocese, told CNA.
On Feb. 7, Sister Mercy of Carmel School in the Ambikapur Diocese in Chattisgarh state, whose government is also ruled by the BJP, was arrested for “abetting the suicide” of a sixth-grade female student. Before the girl’s death, the nun had questioned her and two other girls for being together in the bathroom for a long period of time. The nun had asked the girls to bring their parents to school the next day.
Shortly after the girl’s suicide, Hindu nationalist groups arranged for a large crowd to march to the school, and police were called to the scene. Police arrested the nun the next morning.
Father Anil Mathew, who manages a hostel for children, was also arrested on Jan. 7 in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state in central India, for running an “illegal hostel” and was bailed out only after two weeks in jail. The BJP is also the ruling party in Madhya Pradesh state.
A Catholic priest who was arrested by Indian authorities for violating “anti-conversion” laws was released from jail on Dec. 22 after being detained for nearly three months amid increasing persecution of Christians in the majority-Hindu state of Uttar Pradesh.
“Attacks on Christians continue to increase in different parts of India. Harassment of personnel serving in orphanages, educational, and health care institutions on false allegation of conversions have become common,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) lamented on Feb. 7 at the end of the weeklong assembly attended by 170 bishops.
“Harassment of Christians and those running the institutions has become routine in these states,” Bishop Jerald Almeida, retired bishop of Jabalpur, also in Madhya Pradesh, told CNA on the concluding day of the CBCI assembly.
“I have two false cases against me of conversion and even torture of children and six more against priests, nuns, and teachers. Luckily, I got anticipatory bail from the high court,” Almeida said.
The United Christian Forum (UCF), which monitors anti-Christian violence in the country, in its Dec. 8, 2023, report pointed out that of the 687 incidents of violence against Christians in 334 days in 2023, 531 incidents took place in four states, and 287 took place in Uttar Pradesh.