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Indian laws put Christian missionaries on defensive

Proponents of religious freedom are criticizing Indian laws against forced conversion.

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The walls of Lajja Devi's spartan house are plastered with Hindu images: blue-skinned Lord Krishna playing the flute; the warrior goddess Durga, brandishing a knife in each of her eight hands; barefoot, saffron-robed priests.

But only weeks before, every picture in the house was Christian. Ms. Devi, who lives in Shimla, the capital of the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, was born a Hindu but willingly converted to Christianity five years ago. She returned to Hinduism in a "ghar vapasi" – literally, homecoming – ritual with more than 100 others in February.

"I am back home now; I am much happier," says Devi, beaming.

Her especially noisy, colorful ceremony was held to generate publicity for a new law passed in Himachal Pradesh earlier in February, banning forced religious conversions.

To others, however, Himachal Pradesh's anticonversion law and its "re-conversion" ceremonies give little cause for happiness. Rather, they are a troubling indication of a rising intolerance toward India's tiny Christian minority.

Hindu nationalists have long claimed that a rapacious band of "alleluia wallahs" is threatening India's Hindu identity. There may be some truth in these claims – there have been fears, even within India's Christian minority, that an expansionist evangelical movement is proslytizing too aggressively among India's poorest people.

But recently, these concerns have been used to justify a number of violent attacks on missionaries, and an increase in controversial anticonversion laws.

The law's title seems ironic, given its terms. Anyone wishing to switch religions must inform the district magistrate 30 days before or risk a fine. If a person converts another "by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means," they may be imprisoned for up to two years, fined, or both. The law is silent, however, on the subject of "reconversions."

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