Christians Arrested at Wedding Site on ‘Forcible Conversion’ Charge in India, Relatives Say

Location of Simdega District in Jharkhand state, eastern India. (Wikipedia)

HYDERABADIndia (Morning Star News) – Two weeks ago a Christian couple in eastern India was about to get married, not knowing the bride’s father had filed a false complaint of forcible conversion against them, relatives said.

As they were preparing for the wedding on May 28, police in Jharkhand state arrived at the site of the ceremony and arrested the bride and groom, along with pastor Sudarshan Manjhi, who was to officiate, and a Christian woman invited to attend, they said.

In his complaint, the bride’s father, Somaru Manjhi, alleged that Christians beat him and threatened to kill him if he did not convert to Christianity, allegations which his 18-year-old daughter, Tripti, said were false.

Bolba police in Simdega District registered a First Information Report on May 30, charging the Christians with forcible conversion under Jharkhand state’s new anti-conversion act.

“My father was drugged with alcohol that day, and the Sarna tribals, including the village president, abetted him to submit the false complaint in the police station pending the wedding so there won’t be a Christian wedding in the village,” Tripti told Morning Star News.

“He [Somaru Manjhi] is now repentant for what he has done, but it is too late.”

Everybody in her family of six (four children) put their faith in Christ except her father, she said. Her sister, Sumanti Kumari, the bride, was baptized in 2012 and could never think of marrying a non-Christian in the Sarna tradition, Tripti said.

Though her father wanted Sumanti Kumari to marry a tribal Sarna, she refused, and the rest of the family supported her, Tripti said. Her marriage to 28-year-old Rupesh Manjhi was decided after discussions with elders in the family and church in the presence of Pastor Manjhi, she said.

The pastor’s wife, Biyari Devi, told Morning Star News that the wedding was decided according to the bride and groom’s wishes.

“They both come from Sarna families but have accepted Christ, and it is obvious that they would want a holy matrimony,” Devi said. “Somaru Manjhi is my uncle also in relation. He has always been against Christ and the church since the house church was established in 2008. But he never became violent or aggressive with us until the question was about his daughter’s marriage.”

Rupesh Manjhi, the groom, was ostracized by his family after he came to Christ, Devi told Morning Star News.

Tripti said her family has been pleading with her father to drop the charges.

“We have been pleading with my father to testify in the court that he was instigated by the Sarnas, and that the allegations are false,” she said. “My younger brother and I keep asking him, ‘How can you go against your own daughter? She is in jail because of you. Why are you doing this?’”

Her father responded that he had filed the complaint on the command of the village president and elders, and that he would ask them for help to free only his daughter, Tripti said. Completely in their control, he had only signed the complaint they wrote, she said.

“They have used him to falsely frame the pastor and the couple,” Tripti told Morning Star News.

An attorney representing the Christians told Morning Star News that a family dispute has turned into a nonbailable offense by the “draconian” anti-conversion act.

“The fact that an irrelevant law has been pulled in needlessly in a family dispute that could have simply arisen from difference of opinions between the members is unfortunate and must be condemned,” the attorney said on the condition of anonymity. “It is very unfortunate police registered the FIR without enquiring or verifying into the matter under a law that contains harsh provisions.”

A bail petition was rejected by the chief judicial magistrate. The attorney said a decision on another bail petition before the district sessions judge is awaited.

“They are just a young couple who wanted to be married, and two other people, the pastor and a female believer who were present at the venue, also have been arrested,” the attorney said.

Section 4 of the Jharkhand’s anti-conversion law, ironically titled a “Freedom of Religion Act,” punishes a person guilty of forcible conversion of a minor, woman or a person belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by imprisonment of four years and fine up to 100,000 rupees (US$1,480).

In 2017, six Christians from a Simdega village were falsely charged with hurting religious beliefsafter the villagers attacked them for praying for a sick woman.

11 Christians Arrested

In neighboring West Singhbum District, 11 Christians in Mohanpur have been charged with forcible conversion, including a politician who ran in state Legislative Assembly elections in 2014.

Indrajeet Samad, 53, leader of Adivasi Ho Samaj Mahasabha Prakhand Samiti, a movement launched by indigenous tribes, submitted a complaint to Mohanpur police against the Christians, sources said.

Samad alleged that the Christians who visit his village often entice tribal people with money in order to convert them to Christianity. The May 12 complaint, translated from Hindi, accuses Christians Ajay Champiya, as well as Suman Champiya and his family, of being influenced by Christianity and conducting prayers at their residence with the 11 Christians.

He also claimed that the Christians threatened his group, alleging that they warned that if Samad’s party resisted their conversion efforts, they would have Maoists kill him and his colleagues.

“These are false allegations,” one of the accused told Morning Star News. “Eleven are booked in one case, and there is no connection between us. I belong to CNI [Church of North India], others are Pentecostal or Baptist.”

In 2016, villagers ostracized Suman Champiya’s family after they were baptized, and they have been under pressure since then, said a source who requested anonymity.

On April 9, Ajay Champiya and his wife, Suman Champiya, filed a complaint with Mohanpur police that villagers had ostracized them for more than two years, and that Samad and his colleagues had made it difficult for Christians to live in the village.

“They told us that they work for [Hindu extremist group] RSS, and that all the Christians should be put to death,” the Christians said in the complaint. “Inderjeet Samad passed an order that the Christians water supply must be disconnected, and that they should not be allowed to excrete in fields.”

Mohanpur police refused to register a First Information Report (FIR) based on the two-page complaint, filing an FIR only after tribal leader Samad filed a complaint. Only Samad’s complaint made its way into the FIR. Police charged the Christians with criminal intimidation and Section 4 of the anti-conversion act.

“We moved a petition before the district’s sessions judge with the help of a Christian attorney and are waiting for anticipatory bail,” another accused Christian told Morning Star News.

An attorney representing the Christians said the complaint randomly accuses them of saying certain people have come to know Christ.

“The accusations do not seem specific to any particular person, and the Christian family in question were converted 10 years ago,” the attorney told Morning Star News. “Eleven individuals who have no connection with each other are booked under the draconian act merely because they identify themselves as Christians.”

Samad is a front-runner as the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Legislative Assembly from Mohanpur in elections to be held in 2020, said another source.

Religious freedom advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom-India has recorded 76 incidents of violence against Christians in India in the first four months of 2018, a rate of 20 per month, as recorded on its United Christian Forum helpline (1-800-208-4545).

ADF-India’s records show 15 Christians have been booked under Section 4 of Jharkhand’s anti-conversion act since it became a law in February 2018.

According to the 2011 Jharkhand Religion Census, only 4.3 percent of the state’s population practices Christianity.

The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.

India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution.