A Christian pastor in northern India is still in jail more than three months after he was granted bail because Hindu extremists filed false new charges against him, the pastor’s wife said.
“We are going through troubled times, and we don’t know when this will come to an end,” Preeti Masih told Morning Star News.
Her husband, Pastor Vijay Masih, completed 100 days in jail on Feb. 7.
Masih, the pastor of an Evangelical Church of India (ECI) congregation in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh state, was granted bail on Jan. 16, but new charges were filed against him extending his incarceration. Initially, he was arrested on April 14, 2022, and was released on bail after three days, but then he was arrested again on Oct. 30, according to Morning Star News.
The Christian outlet reported Masih and 49 other Christ-followers in the Hariharganj locality of Fatehpur were arrested starting last April under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, and other laws. The initial complaint was filed by an official of the local Hindu extremist Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) against 35 identified Christians and 20 unidentified Christians on April 15.
The pastor and the other Christians faced newly filed charges in a complaint by Virendra Singh on Jan. 23.
In both the complaints, the Christians are baselessly accused of “Unlawful Conversions”, along with unfounded claims of forgery, cheating, and criminal conspiracy, Morning Star reported.
The trouble for the pastor and the group of Christians began when a mob of Hindu extremists shouting “Hail, Lord Ram” surrounded Pastor Masih’s church building during a Maundy Thursday worship service on April 14.
According to Morning Star, the extremists were accompanied by several media outlets. The Hindu radicals brought locks they later used to chain the gates of the church property. As the group’s leaders called the police, the Christians inside the church also reported the threat to the local police.
When the officers arrived, they told the Christians they would handle the matter.
“We were fooled by believing that the police will do the right thing,” Preeti Masih told Morning Star. “They noted down the personal details of all the Christians, like the government-issued ID number, date of birth, present address, and permanent address along with their names.”
The officers told the Christians they would take them to the police station and then let them go, she said. “Like fools, we believed the police,” Masih said.
As the Christians waited at the station, officers filed a First Information Report (FIR) against 35 identified and 20 unidentified Christians, and they were taken to court. Nine of them who were aged or had physical ailments were allowed to return home, and the rest – including women and young children – were sent to jail.
They procured bail and were released two days later, on April 16.
In his complaint, the local VHP official, Himanshu Dikshit, accused those gathered at the church service of forcibly converting 90 Hindus.
Station Head Officer Amit Mishra then baselessly told news outlet The Print that the ECI was forcefully converting Hindus and others, Preeti Masih said.
Mishra reportedly said the Christians “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.”
The station head told The Print that 1,000 to 2,000 people were estimated to have been converted by church members named in the FIR.
Preeti Masih roundly denied the allegations, saying they were all made-up stories.
“None of the allegations of allurement and forced conversion are true,” she told Morning Star. “Police did not ask us anything. They have only heard one-sided complaints from the opposition party, and under pressure from them they have carried out arrests.”
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Edwin J. Wesley, legal officer and the general secretary of the ECI, said the VHP leader and his supporters made up the entire story.
“The FIR is totally false and baseless,” Wesley told Morning Star. “If one visits the church, it is evident that the church capacity itself is not more than 60 people, so those who were present at the time of the attack inside the church were the total number of people mentioned in the FIR.”
Preeti Masih told the outlet she and her husband had lived peacefully with area Hindus and had no conflicts with anyone.
She said, “We have had no problems on personal levels with anybody. It is very shocking as well as very hurting to see our neighbors speak against us. Only when media people arrived and interviewed our neighbors have they come up with stories and spoken against us, even when none of it is true.”
The Open Doors 2023 World Watch List ranks India as the 11th worst place in the world for Christian persecution. The nation of nearly 1.4 billion people has almost 69.5 million Christians, who account for 4.9% of the overall populace.
Tragically, those believers face massive challenges.
“In recent years there has been a big increase in Hindutva, an ideology that believes only Hindus are true Indians, and that Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities have ‘foreign’ roots and must be expelled. Hindu extremists seem able to attack others with impunity, even using extreme violence in some parts of the country,” Open Doors noted.
“Increasing numbers of states are implementing anti-conversion laws, supposedly to stop Hindus being forcibly converted to other religions, but in reality, they are often used as an excuse to harass and intimidate Christians who are just doing things like distributing aid or having a private church meeting,” the ministry continued.