In India, a priest is acquitted of attempting ‘forcible religious conversion’

FATHER GEORGE MANGALAPILLY, an Indian priest, was recently acquitted of the alleged crime of “forcible religious conversion.” On December 14, 2017, he was attacked, along with 32 seminarians, by a group of radical Hindu extremists while they were singing Christmas carols in the village of Bhumkahar, Jawahar Nagar, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Only in September this year, after four years of legal battles, was he finally acquitted by India’s Supreme Court. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he tells his story:

Can you describe the events of that day in December 2017?
We were two priests and 32 seminarians, theology students, and we had travelled to the village of Bhumkahar, Jawahar Nagar. As we have always done for years, we had organized a Christmas program, with various cultural activities and with the help of the villagers. The event was almost over when a group of people broke up the gathering. They used abusive words and tried to beat some of our seminarians. They ordered us to stop and told us that we needed official permission to hold such an event. A few minutes later, several policemen ordered us to stop, and took us all to the police station.

They accused us of trying to convert the local people, but this was an event we had been organizing for many years as part of seminary formation. The police put us—32 seminarians, two priests and another seven priests who came to the station to inquire about what was happening, including the rector of the seminary and a local driver—all together in a crowded room of the police station until the early morning.  The court granted bail very late in the evening, after which everyone was permitted to go back to the seminary. We had been detained in the police station without food and water for more than 24 hours. Since it was an allegation of conversion, we were afraid we might not be granted bail. 

Father Mangalapilly (center)

After you were arrested, the radical Hindus burned your car and threatened to kill you.
Yes, they burned the car, but no one was inside it. We don’t know who it did, but we know that it was some of the people from the radical group. The police arrested and charged one person who was later allowed to go free. No compensation was given to the priests whose car it was.

Why did they claim that you were doing something illegal?
They accused us of trying to convert the people to Christianity by this program. According to the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 1968, no one can convert anyone forcefully to Christianity. It was a false and baseless accusation. The seminary has been there for over 25 years and we have never forced anyone to convert. One person who accused me was poor and uneducated. He provided this evidence to the media and later changed his statement in the court during the trial, and so we were able to win the case in the Supreme Court. Apart from the testimony of this fellow, there is nothing on record which could potentially be relied upon against me. We wish no vengeance against him; I met him a few times and he has understood the terrible problem that he had created.

How were those four years while you were awaiting the final verdict?
It was a very hard time for all of us. I had to face many court hearings. Every other week I had to go to court and this continued for two and a half years. In this case we appealed to the Supreme Court because we knew that we could show we were innocent, but there are many other cases that have still not been settled, but the faith of Christians is very strong, despite this pressure. No persecution will ever be able to separate us from the faith.

What is the reason for this persecution of Christians in India?
This persecution of Christians is nothing new; this is not the first time in the history of India that there have been cases like this, cases like ours, especially in the states governed by the radical Hindu parties. They are afraid of Christians, because we are educating the people, especially the poor, marginalized, and the downtrodden. We are teaching people to read and write. In India there are a great many people who are poor and illiterate, and the Church is educating them. And of course, some people are afraid that if people are given an education, they will start to insist on their rights. 

The Church grows under persecution; it doesn’t grow when everything is too comfortable. Our Lord said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). This is how the Church grows—it is part and parcel of Christianity.

I sincerely thank all of you, the media, lawyers, judges, all the Church personnel. We pray for all of them, even those who were against us, as the Lord Jesus commanded us to pray even for those who persecute us.

—Maria Lozano & Glaisys Carbonell