Christian leaders are expressing joy and relief over the recent repeal of an anti-conversion law in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.

The law specifically listed Dalits, “untouchables”, who make up approximately one fifth of Tamil Nadu’s population, as one group restricted from evangelism efforts.

The newly-formed Tamil Nadu legislature introduced a bill on May 29 to repeal the four-year-old “Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act.” It went unopposed on the floor and was passed May 31.

“Thank God for this welcome change,” said Gospel for Asia president K.P. Yohannan. “The law had been a heavy burden on our state and district leaders.”

First enacted in October 2002, the law prohibited conversion of Dalits, members of tribal groups, women or children “through force or allurement or fraudulent means.” The maximum penalty was four years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (approximately US$2,200).

Under the law, churches and other Christian organizations were required to inform government officials about each new believer who wished to be baptized. (While Christians view baptism as an external testimony of inward faith, anti-Christian groups see baptism as a means of forcible conversion.) Anyone failing to turn in the required paperwork faced a one-year prison sentence.

“Any time two people with differing ideas converse,” commented Dr. Yohannan, “each one hopes the other will end up agreeing with him. But neither forces the other to agree.

“It is the same in a democratic nation like India. No one forces anyone to accept a differing view, perspective or religion. It must be an individual choice. The only exception I can see to this is the Hindu extremist groups who are forcing men, women and children to revert to Hinduism from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and other religions.”

At least five other Indian states still have anti-conversion laws on the books, many of them targeting Dalits and other low-caste groups as the Tamil Nadu act did. This comes in a period of history when the nearly 300 million Dalits (“Untouchables”) of South Asia are declaring their desire to be free from the Hindu-based caste system and choose their own religion.