In the latest signs of what critics have long described as a deteriorating climate for religious minorities in India under a Hindu nationalist government, several Protestants, including two American nationals, and a Catholic priest have been arrested in separate incidents under the country’s controversial anti-conversion laws.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Father Dominic Pinto of the Lucknow diocese was arrested Feb. 5 along with six Protestants on charges of trying to convert poor Dalits, or “untouchables,” from Hinduism to Christianity, while in Assam, in far northeastern India, two American Baptists were fined Feb. 2 for engaging in religious activities that violated the conditions of their tourist visas.
The Americans, named John Matthew Bone and Michael James Flinchum, were not arrested but were compelled to pay a fine of $500. Pinto, meanwhile, and his Protestant companions, remain in custody pending a bail application.
According to local media reports, Pinto is the director of the Navintha pastoral center of the Lucknow diocese, which he had agreed to make available to a group called Khrist Bhakts, or “followers of Christ,” composed of Hindus, Muslims and members of other religions who nevertheless find inspiration in Christ and pray to him.
Sources said that while the meeting of roughly 200 people was taking place, a group of Hindu activists attempted to disrupt the gathering and then staged a protest outside the local police station, accusing the meeting of targeting poor Hindus, especially women and children, for conversion.
Police officers arrived at the pastoral center and broke up the meeting, taking several people into custody.
The Hindu protestors demanded that Pinto’s name be included in the police complaint, on the grounds that he was responsible for permitting the meeting to occur, even though a diocesan spokesman later said he wasn’t even in attendance.
Eventually, Pinto and six other individuals, including five Protestant pastors who were attending the meeting, were arrested and detained. They face charges under Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law and, if convicted, could be sentenced to ten years in prison.
According to Bishop Gerald Mathias of Lucknow, the Hindu protestors belonged to the right-wing nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad or its young wing, Bajrang Dal. He called charges that the meeting was engaging in conversion “totally false.”
“There was no conversion involved,” Mathias told Crux.
“This is a gross misuse of the draconian anti-conversion law in the state,” Mathias said. “Police have registered a complaint without any evidence or proof of conversion. They come under mob pressure or succumb to the dictates of higher-ups. This is a typical case of harassment and atrocities against Christians.”
“We are praying earnestly and working to get bail at the earliest,” Mathias said. “I hope and pray that justice and good sense will prevail.”
Meanwhile in Assam, the two American Baptists remain at liberty, having received a warning against engaging in other religious activities.
According to the police, Boone and Flinchum came to India on an e-tourist visa and traveled to the town of Tezpur in Assam state to witness the Jan. 31 blessing of a new extension at a Baptist hospital for which they had helped to raise funds.
Hindu activists accused the pair of engaging in religious preaching at the campus of the Baptist Christian Hospital, leading police to interrogate Boone and Flinchum the next day about their activities.
“They were on tourist visas, and as per the provisions, they cannot perform religious activities or propagate religious ideologies. Hence, we called them to the police station and imposed fines of $500 each,” a local police official told the media.
Although no formal case was registered, the Ministry of External Affairs was informed of the incident, and the two Americans were cautioned against further participation in religious functions.
“A Baptist association had held a building inauguration function in Tezpur, and Baptist leaders from different parts of Assam had gathered there. The two US nationals were also present there. The building itself is incomplete, it is half-done, so we have to say that they had come for conversion activities,” the police official said.
“Since they were in the country on tourist visas, they cannot participate in any religious meeting,” he said.
A spokesman for the Baptist group in Assam said that while Flinchum did speak at the dedication of the hospital extension, there was no proselytism involved.
“He expressed happiness to see the new building,” the spokesman said. “All the participants were Christians. There was no any religious content of preaching.”
The local Catholic prelate, Archbishop John Moolachira of Guwahati, expressed solidarity with the Baptist group.
“It is harassment of Christian institution, and looks like the government machinery wants to instill fear in the mind of Christians,” Moolachira told Crux.
Moolachira made the comments while out of the diocese attending a plenary assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
“Though I am in Bangalore, I feel for the victims and our Baptist friends,” he said. “It is not the first instance of harassment of Christian tourists who visit Assam.”
Moolachira’s reference likely was to the fact that in October 2022, seven Germans and three Swedish citizens were detained on similar charges of allegedly flouting visa norms by indulging in missionary activities.
Open Doors International, a Protestant watchdog group that tracks anti-Christian persecution worldwide, currently ranks India as the 11th most dangerous nation for Christians, charging that “Christians around the nation of India find themselves increasingly under threat.”
“This hostility is often driven by an ongoing belief among some Hindu extremists that Indians ought to be Hindu—and any faith outside of Hinduism is not welcome in India,” the group reported.