The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) condemned the arrest last week of a Pentecostal pastor in the northeast Indian city of Rampur over charges of forced conversion.
Police arrested Pastor Charlie John on charges of forced conversion aggravated by the alleged distribution of money after he gave away Bibles and reading materials to people.
“This persecution of Christians must stop,” Sajan K. George, GCIC president, told the news site AsiaNews. He said the allegations against the evangelical pastor were “unfounded.”
George said the Freedom of Religion Bill of Himachal Pradesh has been “used as a tool to persecute innocent Christians.”
He said the Indian Constitution guarantees religious freedom “and Pastor Charlie has not violated any law.”
“I only offered the Bible, and I gave it to those who freely accepted the Good News. Some people rejected the gospel I was giving them, and I didn’t insist,” Pastor John told AsiaNews.
“I am even willing to offer the Bible, which is the Word of God, to the police,” he said.
“What we do is share the Good News with people, tell them about Jesus, but without forcing anyone to convert. The accusations made against me are totally false: I have never offered money to convert people,” added the pastor.
Pastor John, accompanied by two Christian brothers, was confronted by a group of Hindu nationalists who ordered him to stop the distribution process. They then accused the trio of forced conversion activities, including giving people money in exchange for their conversion.
The state of Himachal Pradesh has amended its Freedom of Religion Bill in 2019, increasing the penalties for forced conversion.
Article 3 of the new version of the law reads: “No person will convert or attempt to convert, directly or indirectly, any other person from one religion to another through the use of force, of undue influence, of coercion, induction or any other fraudulent means. Violators will be punished with imprisonment from one to five years.
Human rights group International Christian Concern (ICC) said that Indian states where anti-conversion laws are enacted, including Himachal Pradesh, they are widely used to spread disinformation about minorities and provide legal cover for radical Hindu nationalists and their activities.
“Christian leaders and evangelists are often falsely accused of forcefully converting individuals to Christianity to justify harassment and assault,” read an ICC report.
In 2020, the religious freedom situation in India deteriorated to such a degree that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern,” a designation reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.