The Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru, Peter Machado, was the first pontiff to say that Christians across Karnataka are against the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s proposed ‘anti-conversion’ bill.
After The Quint brought to light an intelligence gathering exercise the Karnataka government had undertaken to classify churches as “authorised and unauthorised”, the Catholic archbishop told The Quint that the Christian identity will come under threat if the community's religious congregations are scrutinised with malice.
Christian priests and preachers can be targeted by “trouble making groups and fringe elements”, if an anti-conversion law gets passed based on such questionable classification.
“What the government seems to be saying is that you can be a Christian, but be a Christian only in your conscience. They seem to be saying, don’t declare it (Christian faith), wear it or show it. I don’t think this is possible. India is a free country.”Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado
The Quint had reported on 23 October, that even though a Legislative Committee on Minorities and Backward Classes had announced a ‘survey’ of churches, on 16 October the State Intelligence Department ordered a probe into churches and their functionaries.
Churches under the scanner include those which are built on church and government properties and those functioning out of private homes.
‘Vague Definitions, Random Enquiries’
What has troubled the Christian community the most is that the exercise of classification is based on loose, ambiguous definitions. The order that classifies gatherings in homes also as “churches or prayer halls”, could strike at the very core of Christian worship, which gives importance to formal and informal congregations of the believers, Machado said.
“We reacted a little more strongly because the government has not defined what 'authorised’ and ‘unauthorised’ churches are. How is the government going to make this classification? Will informal prayer gatherings which are very common, be considered unauthorised?”Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado
Citing the example of prayer groups which visit different houses during celebrations like Christmas, the Archbishop asked, “Will house worships not be allowed?”.
Among Catholics, during feasts (or celebrations) of saints, small processions are held. “Will carrying the grotto of Mother Mary, which is a common practice during celebrations, be considered unauthorised?” the Archbishop asked, even as he reiterated that 'community worship' is an important aspect of the Christian faith.
Also, already Christian preachers and priests in Karnataka are being asked their personal details.
“I have instructed people not to share such details if the enquiry is only by word of mouth. If the authorities produce any written order, then details can be shared.”Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado
Can’t the church leaders deny access to the government?
The archbishop rued, “We are a law-abiding community. We do not want to disobey the government order. Hence we have requested the government to scrap the plan to classify churches and to not introduce the ‘anti-conversion’ bill.” It's worth noting that the BJP had promised promulgation of an anti-conversion bill in its election manifesto.
‘Singling Out Christians?'
Citing Article 25 of the Indian constitution, the archbishop said Indian citizens have the right to “propagate their religion”. Besides, there are provisions in the law which can prevent ‘forceful’ religious conversions, if there are any.
“If a new law is introduced to curb ‘forceful conversions’ it can be misused to target communitarian activities of the believers,” Machado said, adding, that he is not aware of any illegal religious conversions in Karnataka.
However, right-wing organisations, including Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have been clamouring for the proposed 'anti-conversion' bill.
Earlier this month, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai too had said that the state has been “witnessing rampant conversions”. Christians form 1.87 percent of Karnataka’s population.
Unlike what is claimed by some groups, Christians are not “luring” gullible converts to the fold with incentives. “There are thousands of charitable institutions including schools, colleges and hospitals run by the church. If an economically underprivileged child is given a scholarship or fellowship to finish their education in any of these institutions, can that act of charity be considered ‘luring’?” Machado asked.
Given the scope of the law which is being proposed any religious or charitable activity of the church can be considered illegal, the Archbishop implied.
“Why are Christians being singled out?” he asked. The ‘survey’ should be withdrawn, the archbishop demanded. “It is discriminatory to conduct such a ‘survey’. Information which is gathered can also be revealed to unauthorised people, who can take law into their own hands,” Machado said. Moreover, the government should not promulgate the anti-conversion law, which can prevent Christians from gathering at their own places of worship.
“Our places of worship will be targeted and our pastors will be harassed if this law comes into being.”Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado
Even though the churches in Karnataka have come out against the classification of churches and the proposed ‘anti-conversion’ law, the state government has not given the community’s religious leaders any hope.