By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
NEW DELHI, INDIA (BosNewsLife)– An international advocacy group urged the U.S. government Friday, June 17, to condemn Indian authorities for reportedly asking three American Christians to leave India because they allegedly participated in evangelism.
“We urge the U.S. government to look into this matter and take appropriate measures to pressure India to respect the religious freedom of Christians and other religious minorities,” explained Jonathan Racho, regional manager for South Asia of U.S.-based International Christian Concern (ICC).
The influential newspaper Times of India (TOI) said 50-year-old Shelly Louise Deeds, a nurse from Pennsylvania, her daughter Katelyn Heather Deeds, 15, and Diane Gean Harrington, a teacher at Wisconsin, were “asked to leave” the country after Hindu organizations “complained” they “tried to convert poor families” in India’s southern state of Kerala.
Indian police acknowledged there was no evidence the Christian tourists participated in proselytizing, but said they asked them to leave because the women “violated” visa regulations by trying to attend a prayer meeting.
“We have not received any evidence to indicate the three U.S. women were engaged in conversion-related activities. However, they were about to attend [a] religious prayers session,” said Asok Kumar, a police chief in Kerala’s coastal Alappuzha District where the alleged incident took place.
“They have come on visit visas and the law of the land doesn’t permit them to attend any organized meeting or group activities including the prayer sessions,” TOI quoted Kumar as saying. “We were not clear about their intentions. That is why we asked them to leave the country, and they agreed.”
He added that “there is no deportation involved” and that the Christians are “now waiting for their return tickets.”The U.S. Embassy was reportedly informed about this week’s confrontation between the women and authorities.
Local police said they were also investigating activities of three local pastors, identified only as Sabu, 47, Jacob, 34, and James, 45, who were believed to have cooperated with the women in Kottayam district, TOI reported.
The pressure on the women to leave India was expected to be welcomed by a local branch of the Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or ‘National Volunteer Organization’ (RSS), which was among those complaining about the Americans and their companions.
RSS claimed the women and pastors had offered incentives to non-Christians to convert. “The area” in Alappuzha District “had [a] significant Hindu and Muslim population while only some recent converts were part of the Christian community. The pastors and foreigners were trying to influence the local people through the new converts. They had visited several houses in the area and conducted prayer sessions,” RSS said.
Evangelical Christians have often denied they are pressuring people to “convert” to another religion with incentives or otherwise, saying the Bible makes clear that true faith in Jesus Christ is based on a personal, free, choice.
The controversy surrounding the American women has underscored wider international concern about the treatment of minority Christians in India, a heavily Hindu nation of over 1 billion people. “We condemn Indian authorities for ordering the American Christians to leave India because they were about to attend prayer sessions,” said ICC’s Racho.
“India is a popular destination for tourists who travel to India to attend religious ceremonies organized by Hindu, Buddhist or other religious groups. Indian officials do not expel tourists who travel to attend such services.”
His concern is shared by U.S. government investigators.
Although India’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, some local and state government officials restrict the free exercise of religion through “anti-conversion” laws and by a failure to provide adequate protection to persecuted religious minorities, noted the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report by the United States State Department.
Racho said he is worried about the growing influence of Hindu groups opposing the spread of Christianity. “It appears that the Indian officials succumbed to the demands of radical Hindu groups when they expelled the three Christians.”