“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” — Luke 2:14
Peace, however, eludes the faithful in Karnataka. Even as the cold silent nights announce the arrival of the Yuletide, a sense of uncertainty and unease has gripped Christians in the lone BJP-ruled southern state.
They have a reason. The Christians see the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 — or the anti-conversion law passed on 15 September, 2022 — hanging over them like the sword of Damocles.
The emergence of far-right Hindutva groups, too, is of concern. The Christians are apprehensive that the Anti-Conversion Law may be misused when carol groups visit parishioners ahead of the holy night — the first after the law was framed.
“After the introduction of the anti-conversion bill and the Assembly election round the corner, we fear that there will be attacks on churches, particularly during the midnight services, and on carol singers who go house to house singing glory to the Lord,” JA Kanthraj, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bangalore, told South First.
He appealed to the government and the authorities concerned to make necessary arrangements to ensure such an incident that would spoil the spirit of Christmas.
“We are celebrating Christmas in a joyous environment after two years of a violent pandemic that had left humanity bruised and battered,” he added.
The Christians were opposed to the bill even before it was tabled in the Assembly.
“Be aware that this will not only be a government bill,” Metropolitan Archbishop of Bangalore Dr Peter Machado was quoted as saying before the bill was passed.
“This will be a bill of small groups and they will do what perhaps the government won’t do or can’t do. I don’t mind the police coming to my place and asking us; they have every right to do so. I don’t want every small group coming and telling us what we should do and what we should not do,” he said in October 2021.
Christian group seeks security for carols
The pro-Hindutva groups have been accusing Christians, comprising 1.87 percent of the state’s population, of involvement in religious conversions.
Additionally, Karnataka’s legislative committee on Backward Communities and Minorities’ Welfare in October 2021 asked district authorities to survey churches and the functioning of Christian missionaries.
Against this backdrop, members of the Christian community approached the state police chief and sought protection for Christmas carol events.
On Thursday, I December, representatives of the Akhila Bharatha Christha Mahasabha met the Director General and Inspector General of Police Praveen Sood with a memorandum.
They explained the evolution of Christmas carols in which a group of singers from the respective churches, along with Santa Clause/s, visit houses of Christian community members and sing hymns celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Mahasabha requested Sood to instruct all superintendents of police and inspectors in the state to ensure the safety of carol groups. They pointed out the spate of attacks on community members and churches alleging attempts to convert people from other faiths to Christianity.
“The state police chief assured the safety and protection of Christian community members at all public events,” Prajwal Swamy, founder and president of the Mahasabha, told South First.
The organisation’s leaders claimed that the Mahasabha has members from all Christian denominations.
A senior police officer termed the question of whether the new law would be misused “hypothetical”.
“I don’t want to comment. Nothing will happen as carols have been happening for decades now,” he told South First.
Carols integral to celebrations
In the memorandum, the Christian organisation said carols and celebrations are not connected to religious conversion.
“Carols are an integral part of Christmas celebrations. Several non-Christian friends, too, invite the carol groups to perform at their residences,” Naomi Gracy, working president of the organisation, said.
She referred to recent incidents in Channapatna and Mandya, where Christians were targeted.
A few days ago, members of Hindi Jagarana Vedike confronted a pastor, Dennis George, accusing him of trying to convert Hindus to Christianity. The allegation was levelled against him after he had held a prayer meeting.
In Mandya, five people were arrested under the Anti-Conversion Law on 10 November for distributing pamphlets that allegedly hinted at conversion.
Several arrests have been made in Karnataka after the law was passed. The law prohibits conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, fraud, allurement or marriage.