Priest relieved after Supreme Court quashes conversion case

By Jose Kavi

New Delhi: A Catholic priest in central India has expressed happiness after the Supreme Court quashed a case of religious conversion against him.

“I feel relaxed after nearly four years of exasperating legal battle,” Father George Mangalapilly, a professor at St Ephrem’s Theological College in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, told Matters India September 14, a day after a three-judge bench found no basis in the allegations against him.

The case against the 64-year-old priest was that he had allegedly tried to bribe a person to become Catholic.

“I had to fight the fabricated case from the lower court to the Supreme Court,” he added.

Earlier on August 28, 2020, the Madhya Pradesh High Court had refused to quash the case.

The case against Father Mangalapilly was registered on December 14, 2017, when he and another priest took 32 theology students for carol singing to Jawahar Nagar Bhumkahar village near Satna, about 485 km northeast of the state capital of Bhopal.

The carolers were intercepted by Bajrang Dal activists, who accused them of converting people with lure and force.

Police detained the Catholic group as the Hindu radicals alleged the carol singing was a ploy to convert gullible Hindu villagers.

The police took the carolers to the Civil Lines police station purportedly to protect them. The police also detained another group of seven priests and their driver when they went to inquire about the seminarians.

The Hindu activists not only laid siege of the police station, denying others entry, but set fire to the vehicle the seven priests used to come to the station. The radicals beat some in the Catholic group at the police station.

Father Mangalapilly says the police registered a case against him and five “unknown people” after the Hindu radicals brought Dharmendra Kumar Dohar, who alleged that the priest had offered him 5,000 rupees and a rosary and dipped him in a pond as part of the conversion ceremony.

The police then arrested Father Mangalapilly from the group of 42 who were staying crammed inside a room in the station.

Although the others were allowed to go, they refused to leave until the priest was given bail, which he got after next day.

“We were in the police station from 6 pm on December 14, 2017 to 10 pm next day,” Father Mangalapilly recalled.

The priest said more than 50 villagers with them for carol singing, but they disappeared as soon as the Hindu radicals arrived.

The last four years have been a great strain on the priest as he had to fight the case alone. “Of course the seminary and the diocese helped with funds,” he added.

He moved the High Court seeking cancellation of criminal proceedings against him. The High Court on August 29, 2020, declined to quash criminal proceedings against the priest. It noted that the complainant’s FIR had mentioned the priest offering allurement to convert.

Father Mangalapilly then moved the Supreme Court.

According to him, this was the third case against him under the anti-conversion law since 2009. “In the other two cases, I was one of the accused, unlike in this case,” he added.

Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in India with Hindu groups often accusing Christian missionaries of luring poor villagers — through cash and kind — to convert to their faith.

Madhya Pradesh, a BJP-ruled state, has an estimated 210,000 Christians, according to the 2011 census.

Father Mangalapilly says although the incident had shaken the seminarians it helped strengthen their vocation. “All the 32 seminarians except one were ordained priests, who now serve their dioceses. One died in a road accident in Chikmagalur.”

The major seminary trains priests primarily for the mission dioceses and religious congregations of the Syro-Malabar Church in northern India. Groups of seminarians have caroled in neighboring villages during the Advent and Christmas season since the college opened in 1992.
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