India: Mother Teresa Charity Accused of 'Forced Conversion'

India: Mother Teresa Charity Accused of 'Forced Conversion'

Police in the western Indian state of Gujurat are investigating a women’s shelter operated by a Mother Teresa-founded charity for allegedly “hurting Hindu religious sentiments and luring young girls to convert to Christianity,” the news site OpIndia reported Wednesday.

Police in the Makarpura district of Vadodara, Gujarat, registered an “FIR” against Missionaries of Charity, which runs a women’s shelter in Vadodara city, on December 14. An FIR, or “first information report,” is the initial step police must take when launching a criminal investigation in South Asia. Vadodara police said they registered a case against the Christian charity after receiving a complaint filed by Mayank Trivedi, a local District Social Defense officer for Makarpura.

The Vadodara City Police filed an FIR against Missionaries of Charity on Tuesday based on a handful of alleged violations of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 295A, “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage feelings of any class by insulting its religious beliefs” and Section 298, “deliberately uttering words to wound the religious sentiments of a person.” The organization has also allegedly violated Section 3 of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which prohibits “forcible conversion.”

“The punishment for forcible conversion under the act is up to three years with/or a fine of up to Rs. 50,000 [$656],” according to OpIndia. “As per Section 4 of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003, if a minor has been forcefully converted, the punishment would be up to four years and/or a fine up to Rs. 1 lakh [$1,312].”

Trivedi writes in his complaint that he visited the Missionaries of Charity shelter home for girls in Makarpura on December 9 together with an unnamed chairman of Makarpura’s Child Welfare Committee. The two social welfare colleagues allegedly witnessed the shelter’s organizers engage in activities designed “to hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus intentionally and with bitterness,” according to the FIR registered by Vadodara police on December 14, which is based on Trivedi’s complaint.

The FIR details how charity staff allegedly “lured” girls staying at the temporary shelter “to adopt Christianity by making them wear the cross around their neck and also placing the Bible on the table of the storeroom used by the girls, in order to compel them to read the Bible.”

“It is an attempted crime to force religious conversion upon the girls,” the FIR noted, according to the Indian Express, which reviewed the document.

Trivedi also alleged the women’s shelter “served non-vegetarian food to some of the girls,” according to OpIndia. Critics say not offering Hindus vegetarian meal options could be considered an offensive act because most Hindus abstain from meat. Many Hindus specifically refuse to eat beef, as the cow is considered a sacred animal in the Hindu faith.

Trivedi further accused the Missionaries of Charity of having recently “forced a Hindu girl to marry a Christian man according to Christian rituals.”

Vadodara Police Commissioner Shamsher Singh told reporters on December 14 his colleagues had initiated an investigation into the alleged forced conversion of a woman who previously stayed at the Christian shelter.

“We have begun a probe today based on the complaint. There has been one case of a woman from [the Indian state of] Punjab being converted by the Missionaries of Charity after she lived in the home, which the committee has reported,” Singh said, referring to the Makarpura Child Welfare Committee.

“There are exhaustive guidelines in place for shelter homes, which they must follow. We will examine the case on the basic FIR,” he added.

A spokesperson for Missionaries of Charity responded to the Vadodara City Police’s decision to file an FIR against the organization on Tuesday.

“We are not involved in any religious conversion activity,” the charity’s representative said in a statement.

“We have 24 girls in the home. These girls live with us, and they follow our practice as they see us doing the same when we pray and live. We have not converted anyone or forced anyone to marry into Christian faith,” the statement further read.

According to India’s most recent census, taken in 2011, Vodadara has a population of about 1.8 million. More than 85 percent of Vodadara residents identify as Hindu, while 11 percent follow Islam. Other religions — such as Jainism, Sikhism, and Christianity — account for the beliefs of the remaining 4 percent of Vodadara’s population.

Missionaries of Charity operates its Vodadara women’s shelter with funds provided by the organization’s main location in Kolkata, which is the capital of India’s West Bengal state. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) was a Catholic nun who devoted the second half of her life to serving the poorest residents of Kolkata, for which she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. This service led Mother Teresa to establish “one of the world’s largest [Christian] missionary groups — Missionaries of Charity — an order of 3,000 nuns and 400 brothers in 87 countries, tending to the poor in 167 cities across the globe,” according to the Print, an Indian online newspaper.

Gabrielle Reyes