Indian court withdraws comment on religious conversions

By Ecumenical News International
January 28, 2011

Churches and Christian groups welcomed an unprecedented step by the Supreme Court of India to withdraw remarks on religious conversions that it made in its verdict concerning the murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons - writes Anto Akkara.

However while praising this step, the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) has expressed concern over the "way the justice system functions."

The Supreme Court in its 21 January 2011 verdict in the murder of Graham Staines and his sons, had included comments implying that conversions were at the roots of anti-Christian violence.

The Australian missionary, who had run a leprosy home in Orissa state since 1965, died in an arson fire in 1999 along with his two young sons, Philip and Timothy, as they slept in a van in the village of Manoharpur.

The Supreme Court rejected the death sentence sought by the prosecution for Hindu fundamentalist leader Dara Singh who was convicted of leading a mob attack on the Staines family.

The court said the triple murder could not be treated as the "rarest of rare cases" that warrants the death sentence in the Indian legal system, as Singh’s "intention (was) to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity."

"It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone’s belief by way of 'use of force,' provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other," the court said.

Following protests by civil rights groups and Christians, the court expunged both these remarks on 25 January from the 76-page verdict.

While the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and several Christian groups welcomed this, the NCCI was not satisfied. "Withdrawal of those comments is welcome. But the damage has been already done," the Rev Roger Gaikwad, General Secretary of NCCI, told ENInews on 27 January. NCCI represents 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches.

"We have analysed the verdict and decided to launch a campaign to make churches aware of the damage it has done," Gaikwad said. "After having the harm done, what is the point of undoing it? It has virtually endorsed the (Hindu) fundamentalists' claim," he said.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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