Lucknow: In the latest among a series of anti-conversion crackdowns in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district, the police have arrested 14 people associated with a local church for allegedly offering “allurements” such as free buffaloes, school admissions, and jobs to poor Hindus to get them to adopt Christianity.
Since April, the police have arrested 40 people connected to the Evangelical Church of India (ECI) in the Hariharganj locality of Fatehpur, with 14 of the arrests taking place between 30 October and 9 November. In addition, the police last month also arrested five people connected with the Naya Jeevan Church in Fatehpur’s Lalauli area. All arrests came on the back of complaints from local Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal units.
Speaking to ThePrint about the latest round of arrests, Kotwali station house officer (SHO) Amit Mishra claimed that the Evangelical Church of India is “associated” with the NGO World Vision.
“They would give all kinds of allurements, like admissions to children in missionary schools and jobs to youngsters in the local missionary hospital and NGOs. They would go to villages and extend financial help to people. They would buy buffaloes for those who couldn’t afford them,” he said.
He estimated that “1,000 to 2,000” people had been converted by the Church’s accused members so far, although ascertaining the exact number was subject to investigation.
“Those arrested include converted Hindus from different states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Uttarakhand. So far, 14 persons have been arrested this time apart from the others arrested in April,” he said.
The church has disagreed vehemently with the accusations against it.
Speaking to ThePrint, the Reverend Edwin John Wesley, general secretary and legal officer of the Evangelical Church of India, Delhi, claimed that a gathering for Maundy Thursday before Easter had been interrupted by a VHP “mob” chanting “Jai Shri Ram”.
The subsequent FIRs were baseless, he alleged, adding that Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law was being used to “harass” Christians.
He added that he has lodged complaints against the arrests with the National Commission for Minorities, the Uttar Pradesh Minority Commission, and the National Human Rights Commission.
VHP vs Evangelical Church
On 14 April, a local VHP office-bearer lodged a complaint with the police against the pastor and other associates of the Evangelical Church of India, alleging that they had lured and converted “around 90 Hindus” over a period of 40 days with promises of financial assistance and jobs.
On 15 April, the police booked 55 people — 35 named and 20 unnamed — and also made 26 arrests under sections of the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021. The FIR also invoked various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 506 (criminal intimidation), 420 (cheating), and 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating).
Speaking to ThePrint, Virendra Pandey, provincial secretary of VHP’s Fatehpur unit, described the events leading up to the arrests. According to him, a group of VHP workers had visited the church in April and observed that some 200 persons had gathered there.
“When we asked some of the visitors why they were there, they told us that the members of the church visit villages and extend different kinds of help to them,” he said. “If someone is unwell, they help with medicines, if girls are not getting married in a family, they ask the family to make the girl wear a cross so that she gets married. If couples are fighting, then they are asked to wear the cross.”
Pandey claimed that once they developed a rapport with their “targets”, the Christian group would ask Hindus to immerse their idols in ponds and keep Christian calendars. Those who were more resistant, he alleged, would be offered “Rs 10,000 to 50,000” or enticed with promises of jobs and school admissions.
“Targets would be asked to visit the church every Sunday and then finally, they would be asked to accept Christianity,” he claimed.
Rev Wesley, however, has alleged that the controversy started when a VHP “mob” arrived to harass a congregation.
“On 14 April, on the occasion of the Maundy Thursday, members of the Christian community were engaged in prayers when around 70-80 persons locked the main gate of the church and started to chant ‘Jai Shi Ram’. Those who were attending were not able to understand what was happening. The church is 30 years old and its members had never come across such a situation,” he said.
Wesley claimed that the police arrived at the scene, but only filed a case against the pastor and those attending the prayers. “When we filed a complaint against Himanshu Dixit (a VHP office bearer) who came with the mob, the police closed it within 24 hours,” he alleged.
“When the matter reached the court, all were granted bail. However, a second complaint was filed by him last month and cops added five other sections and started chasing the remaining persons,” he said.
On 30 October, the Fatehpur police arrested pastor Vijay Masih and also reportedly seized Aadhaar cards with the “updated identities” of purported converts.
On 4 November, 10 more people were arrested and booked under the provisions of the state’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, as well as sections 506 and 153 A of the IPC.
The first to be arrested at Fatehpur’s Patthar Kata Chauraha locality was one Rajesh Singh. According to a police statement, he was “waiting” to convert people at the spot where he was caught.
Upon inputs from Singh, the police then headed to arrest nine of his “accomplices” from a house in the Bakshpur area. They had gathered there to hold a meeting for “promoting Christianity and giving allurements to poor/ Dalits Hindu families,” the statement from the Fatehpur police said.
Further, said the statement, the attendees at the meeting “said they are supported by persons from World Vision, who help them financially and in holding meetings”. Subsequently, three more associates of the church were arrested.
Speaking to ThePrint, Fatehpur Superintendent of Police Rajesh Kumar Singh said that the Evangelical Church of India in Fatehpur is a very old institution and the accused were engaged in conversions for a long time.
“They would choose poor people and give them medicines, computers, mobiles, etc. Then, they would call them to their prayer meets. If someone was ill, they would give admissions in local missionary hospitals and later ask them to recite prayers. Later, they would claim that a sick person had been treated due to their prayers. Money was offered for medicines, clothes, treatment, etc,” he said.
When asked about whether the Church converts people, Wesley denied it. “As far as conversions are concerned, we have not done that in the past and won’t do that in future,” he said.
He added that the Constitution guarantees minorities the freedom to promote, practice, and propagate their religion, and that the anti-conversion law was being misused by the some groups.
Case of Naya Jeevan Church
Last month, several members of the Naya Jeevan Church in Fatehpur’s Lalauli area were arrested based on complaints about forced conversions from Bajrang Dal members. Pastor Jayalal Gihar and four others were booked for hurting religious sentiments and criminal intimidation.
These arrests came after Bajrang Dal members claimed that members of the Naya Jeevan Church were converting people in Bahua town in the district.
“We received information about conversions in Bahua town, and when we visited the church, a register was found with details like names and mobile numbers of around 1,500 persons. We started suspecting their intentions and when locals were questioned, they informed us that the accused were giving money and other allurements for conversions. The police were informed,” Pandey said. According to local reports, investigations into the matter are still in progress.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)