Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Indian priest gets bail in conversion case

Fr. Siby Sebastian | St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Diocese

The top court in a central Indian state has granted anticipatory bail to a Catholic priest who was on the run after he was accused of trying to convert tribal children.

The Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court granted anticipatory bail to Father Sibi Sebastian, manager of a Jabalpur diocese-run school in the tribal district of Mandla, on July 13.

“It is a great relief for us,” said one of the priests who has been monitoring the case.

The priest, who did not want to be named, told UCA News on July 14 that the case was “fake and an attempt to target Christians and their institutions.”

Yogesh Parashar, a member of the state-run Child Welfare Committee, in a police complaint filed on March 8 alleged the priest was attempting to convert school children.

He also claimed in the complaint that Sebastian was trapping tribal children in bonded labor in violation of the juvenile justice law and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, a special law for the protection of Dalits and tribal people.

Justice Vishal Dhagat in his July 13 order said that “no allegation regarding conversion has been made” in their statements by the children.

“It has also not been stated that children were forced to do bonded labor or free labor,” he said while granting anticipatory bail to the priest.

Sebastian had approached the high court after a special judge in March rejected his anticipatory bail plea.

Similar cases have been registered against Church officials in Madhya Pradesh.

Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur and a nun from the diocese are facing charges under a sweeping anti-conversion law that the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules Madhya Pradesh, passed in 2021.

Bishop Almeida and Sister Liji Joseph of the Congregation of Mother Carmel were granted protection from arrest by the top court in the state on June 22.

The federal and state child rights panels have been targeting Church-run schools, hostels and orphanages since March this year and have been registering cases under the draconian anti-conversion law.

“Of late, what we see is the deliberate targeting of our institutions and our people for no reason at all,” said Daniel John, a Catholic leader from the state capital Bhopal.

The child rights panels are meant to help improve the running of institutions but appear bent on tarnishing the image of the Church and its institutions, John told UCA News on July 14.

“No doubt it is a difficult time for us,” he said.

Christians make up 0.29 percent of the more than 72 million people in Madhya Pradesh.