“This law is contrary to every form of democracy,” he said. The archbishop was referring to a document on religious freedom approved March 26 by the state government without any discussion in the Assembly.
Under the law, anyone who wants to change religion must first request permission from the civil authorities. The law provides for heavy fines or prison terms for conversions effected by force or fraudulent means. It follows a similar law in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Archbishop Fernandes attributes responsibility for the document to India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which won recent elections in Gujarat.
The archbishop noted that there have been no cases of forced conversions or conversions obtained with fraudulent means. “This law violates basic human rights and constitutional rights, freedom of conscience and religious freedom,” he said.
“We believe that conversion is a grace from God, which cannot be subjected to the scrutiny of any civil government,” the archbishop added.
“Asking for the permission of the civil authorities for religious conversion means abdicating from the personal responsibility of every individual for the eternal salvation of his soul,” he said. “In this case, every man must respond to the voice of his soul and not to temporal rules.”
The new Gujarat government already warned in February of a “discriminatory censure” by police, only of Christian communities, families and institutions. That warning prompted a strong protest from the Indian bishops’ conference.
The bishops’ fears are motivated by recent episodes of violence against Christians and other members of religious minorities. The bishops fear the aim is to shut Christians in a ghetto and limit their influence.