More than 30 priests and seminarians singing carols at a village near Madhya Pradesh’s Satna town were detained on Thursday after Bajrang Dal activists accused them of forced conversion. One priest was also arrested under the state’s anti-conversion law on Friday.
Some of the priests and seminarians, released in the early hours of Friday, alleged they had been roughed up by members of the right-wing group on the police station’s premises. Both the police and the Bajrang Dal activists denied the allegations.
Eight priests who had come to the Civil Lines Police Station on Friday to inquire about the previous day’s detentions were also detained, while their car was torched. Police said they were unaware of who torched the car, and added that they had registered a case under IPC Section 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance) in connection with the incident.
On Friday, M George, who teaches at St Ephrem’s Theological College, and five unknown persons were booked under the Freedom of Religion Act and Sections 153-B and 295-A of the IPC on a complaint by one Dharmendra Dohar, who alleged he had been offered money to convert to Christianity.
A resident of Bhumkahar village, the 21-year-old alleged that missionaries were active in his village for the last two years, and that he had been given “Rs 5,000, a cross and a Bible” after he took a dip in a pond to change his faith.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) denied allegations of forced conversion, and said that 30 seminarians and two priests from the Theological College were detained by police when they were conducting a carol singing programme — a routine practice during Christmas season for the last 30 years.
Sub-inspector Mohini Sharma of the Civil Lines Police Station said George, 60, was released on bail, and police are yet to identify the five others allegedly involved in converting Dharmendra.
She claimed police had brought the priests and seminarians to the station because the situation in the village was getting tense due to the presence of Bajrang Dal activists.
Secretary General of the CBCI, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, told The Indian Express that charges of conversion were yet to be proven, and accused the police of complicity with right-wing activists. He alleged that the police stood by as the priests and seminarians were assaulted.
“The charge of conversion for which the priests and seminarians were detained is frivolous. The situation outside the police station was allowed to be so hostile that even those who wanted to approach the detained persons could not get access to them. The violence perpetrated by groups, who claim to be nationalists and have taken upon themselves the mantle of protecting nationalism and religion, is disgraceful,’’ the CBCI said in a statement.
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