All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) spokesperson Saket Gokhale on December 29 wrote a letter to the Embassy of the Holy See of the Vatican urging them to take note of the Assam church survey order which amounts to “state-sponsored persecution of Christians” and asked them to raise the matter in appropriate diplomatic forums with the Centre.
In a letter to Reverend Leopoldo Girelli, Apostolic Nuncio to India, Embassy of the Holy See of Vatican, Gokhale said, “Through this representation, we wish to apprise you of this extremely serious issue in Assam with an appeal to notify His Holiness Pontifex Maximus as well as The Holy See regarding this state-sponsored persecution of Christians and to take up this issue in the relevant diplomatic forums with the Govt of India as you may deem fit.”
Gokhale was referring to the recent order by Assam Police seeking information on the number of churches in the region along with details of people involved in religious conversion.
Several Trinamool Congress leaders, including Meghalaya TMC vice president George Lyngdoh, have slammed the Assam government for the divisive move.
On December 16, a letter was issued by the superintendent of police of the Special Branch (SB) of Assam Police seeking information from all SPs of various districts on religious conversion and the number of churches set up in their respective districts in the last one year.
The letter also sought suggestions from the SPs on “countermeasures” on religious conversion.
The letter further asked the SP to furnish information on the allotment of land to these churches, key persons associated with these churches, instances of conversion in the last six years, community and other patterns of religious conversion and the prime factors for such conversions.
Gokhale said that the Assam government was using the police and intelligence department “to target and persecute not only the Christian clergy in the state but also people who have chosen to embrace the teachings of Lord Jesus Christ and convert to Christianity.”
“The right to profess, propagate, and practise one’s faith is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. Moreover, international law, as well as the Geneva Convention, recognize the right to freely practise religion and faith of one’s choice as a fundamental human right,” Gokhale said.
He added, “With the abovementioned circular, the BJP government in Assam has now institutionalized the persecution and targeting of Christians and churches in the state and is using state machinery and intelligence agencies to deny Christians the right to practise their faith and to target those that wish to embrace Christianity.”
On December 24, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said he has “completely disassociated” himself from the letter of the Special Branch. “I do not know in what context the SP had issued the letter. I have already asked DGP to inquire and take corrective measures because in Assam we want to live in peace and harmony,” Sarma said.
“We do not want to offend the religious sentiments of any community. In short, I completely disassociate from the letter. It was never discussed in the government forum. The letter is wholly unwarranted,” the chief minister said.
He said there is a distinction between forceful conversion and otherwise. He said Assam does not have a law to regulate conversion.
“Normally such letters go from the home department or the DGP if at all the government wants to issue such letters. But this letter has gone from the table of an SP of the Special Branch,” the chief minister said.
“Let me check the ground as to why it was issued. I want to clarify the position of the state government that we don’t want any survey on any religious institutions,” he added.
UCFNEI reacts to Gokhale’s letter:
Reacting to the move of the AITC, United Christian Forum of North East India (UCFNEI) spokesperson Allen Brooks said, “We do not subscribe nor support the letter written to the Vatican Ambassador by a spokesperson of a political party.”
“As Indians, like any other community who follow their respective faiths, we in the Northeast too believe in Christianity, a right, privilege and guarantee provided to us by our Constitution. As such, we are empowered and competent to address such issues within the rights and legal safeguards provided by our Constitution,” he added.