Christian, Muslim schools close in southern India to protest religious conversion ban

MADRAS, India - More than 6,000 schools run by Christians and Muslims closed in southern India's Tamil Nadu state Thursday to protest a new state law outlawing religious conversion by force or inducement.

Thousands of Christians, Muslims and members of lower Hindu castes marked the day with a fast.

The state government earlier this month passed a new law imposing penalties of up to three years in prison for converting someone by force or inducement.

Hard-line Hindus accuse missionaries from other religions of converting poor Hindus — India's largest faith — through offers of money or jobs, or through coercion.

Christian and Muslim minority community leaders deny such claims, and say the new law violates religious freedoms guaranteed by India's constitution and the U.N. Human Rights Charter.

Minority religious leaders worry that the term "inducement" could apply to the free education and health care provided by Christian hospitals and schools, or to the chance for lower-caste Hindus to escape social discrimination by changing their religions and names.

Most Christian and Muslim schools receive some financial aid from the state government, which threatened to cut it off if the schools declared unauthorized holidays.

Groups of India's low-caste Dalits or "untouchables" on Thursday said they were planning mass conversions to Buddhism on Dec. 6 to remove the stigma attached to them under Hinduism.

"We are rallying more than 30 Dalit organizations" to "ensure that thousands of Dalits convert to Buddhism on that day," said O. Ravichandran, an official from the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation.

Dalits are at the bottom of India's 2,500-year-old caste system.