Christian Couple in India Sentenced to Prison

Pastor Ramesh Ahirwar and wife Sakshi Ahirwar say they were falsely accused in March 11, 2024 conviction of forcible conversion in Madhya Pradesh, India. (Morning Star News)

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – A Christian couple in India has been sentenced to prison after Hindu extremists instigated a false case of forcible conversion against them, sources said.

A woman they are accused of pressuring denied in court that the Christians tried to forcibly/fraudulently convert her or her husband, but Pastor Ramesh Ahirwar and his wife Sakshi Ahirwar of Viveknagar Bhansa village near Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, were convicted under the state’s anti-conversion law on March 11. The district court sentenced them to two years in prison and a fine of 25,000 rupees (US$300) each, the pastor said.

“I am shocked at the conviction,” Pastor Ahirwar told Morning Star News. “The charges against us are baseless and utterly untrue.”

If the conviction stands, it would be the first under Madhya Pradesh’s anti-conversion law.

Pastor Ahirwar was on a trip to Delhi in October 2021 when members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) instigated a man from the neighboring village, Abhishek Ahirwar, to accuse the couple of abducting his estranged wife and pressuring her to convert to Christianity, the church leader said. Pastor Ahirwar, who had helped arrange the marriage of the Hindu couple, said the wife returned to her parents’ home when she left her husband.

The complainant, Abhishek Ahirwar, alleged that the pastor tried to fraudulently convert him as well.

“Abhishek said that I kept his wife against her wishes, and that I am not allowing her to go back to her husband’s house – also, that I pressured her to convert and offered to construct a house for her and give her 20,000 rupees [US$240] every month in return,” Pastor Ahirwar told Morning Star News. “The mason’s son [Abhishek] said that I offered him 20,000 rupees every month if he converted to Christianity.”

Abhishek Ahirwar’s father is a mason the pastor had hired in the construction of his house church in 2021.

“I suspect that members of the RSS offered to help the mason’s son to intervene in saving his marriage and in return asked him to help them frame me in the case, so that my church is shut,” Pastor Ahirwar said.

Abhishek Ahirwar’s Hindu wife testified in court that she was neither coerced into changing her religion nor offered any monetary incentives, the pastor said. She testified that the pastor did not offer any money to her husband either, and she clarified that Pastor Ahirwar did not pressure her to refrain from returning to her husband’s house.

“There was a lot of chaos and discrepancy among the statements of the complainant, his father, their witnesses – I was very confident that after recording everybody’s statement, the court will set us free,” Pastor Ahirwar said. “But sadly, that did not happen. The court pronounced us guilty.”

The judge seemed prejudiced or under duress to convict them, a Christian leader from Madhya Pradesh told Morning Star News on condition of anonymity.

“It is not uncommon to have only adverse judgments against religious minorities in lower courts or even high courts nowadays,” the source said. “It is only in the Supreme Court and in selective cases that justice can be expected.”

Abhishek Ahirwar registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the couple and the pastor’s father-in-law, Nathuram Ahirwar, on Oct. 20, 2021.

“Abhishek narrated a completely made-up story in the FIR, stating that on Oct. 10 and 11, 2021, I allured him to convert to Christianity,” Pastor Ahirwar said.

Six months after the filing of the FIR, prosecutors produced two new witnesses from the area. They told the court that the pastor was forcing them to convert to Christianity and had offered them 20,000 rupees each. The witnesses testified that they were not there as witnesses for Abhishek Ahirwar in his case, but for themselves.

Pastor Ahirwar said that Abhishek Ahirwar did not provide accurate dates, and that his father, the mason, was not a direct witness to the allegations against the couple.

The pastor and his wife, both 41, have been ministering in Sagar since 2012 and live with their three children, ages 20, 18 and 14. Pastor Ahirwar, who has been leading the independent Prarthana Bhawan (House of Prayer) church since 2018, said the mason had requested he search for a matrimonial match for his then-bachelor son in 2021.

Pastor Ahirwar found a Hindu match for the mason’s son, and they married. Within the first few months of marriage, the groom’s family began to trouble the wife for a dowry. Weary of their demands, she returned to her parents’ home and refused to go back, the pastor said.

The husband’s family repeatedly asked Pastor Ahirwar to intervene, but he insisted they speak with the wife’s family directly, he said. The RSS then apparently found the occasion to offer to help the husband regain his wife in exchange for him framing the Christian couple, Pastor Ahirwar said.

Police summoned Pastor Ahirwar on Oct. 20, 2021, and after interrogation he left. Around 20 days later, police arrested the pastor, and the district court released him on a bail bond.

Police arrested Sakshi Ahirwar and her 75-year-old father and presented them before the district court about 10 days after Pastor Ahirwar was detained, and they were sent to jail until they obtained bail three days later.

Pastor Ahirwar, his wife and father-in-law attended court proceedings every month for more than two years.

“All three of us had to be present in the courtroom, sometimes once a month and other times twice a month,” Pastor Ahirwar said.

In the March 11 verdict, the court acquitted Nathuram Ahirwar for lack of evidence but convicted the couple, Pastor Ahirwar said.

The Christian couple’s attorney filed a bail application the same day of the verdict, which was subsequently granted, allowing them to remain free until April 12.

An appeal challenging the verdict was filed in the High Court on March 22, and Pastor Ahirwar’s case was registered with the High Court on Monday (April 1), he said. The next hearing is scheduled for Friday (April 5).

“I had no finances to appeal in the High Court,” the pastor said. “I had to arrange for 50,000 rupees [US$600] before I could appeal. It seemed impossible to arrange, with my current situation, until someone whom I don’t want to name offered to help me with the fees and arrange for an attorney for me.”

He has been unable to lead his house church since the March 11 verdict, he said.

“The right-wing mob has been eyeing me,” he said. “They came to my house in my absence with sticks and threatened my family of dire consequences if I held the church worship services.”

Since the court’s judgment on March 11, Hindu nationalist have been circulating messages against Pastor Ahirwar and his family daily.

“They are bringing up my matter on social media and newspapers to create pressure on the judiciary and to turn the villagers against me,” he said.

Though encouraged by Scripture, the couple fear their children will be left alone. The family has no source of income.

“I am not discouraged, because whatever is happening to us is according to the Bible,” the pastor said. “But, when we look at the children, we fear what will happen to them when we are sent to jail.”

He also worries about his wife, who has medical conditions.

“My wife has health issues, and I fear how will she manage in the jail,” Pastor Ahirwar said. “We do fear the uncertainties of the future but choose to trust God.”

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