The Supreme Court of India upheld the life sentence of a Hindu man on Friday, convicted of burning to death an Australian missionary and his two sons 11 years ago.
Dara Singh, who was linked to extreme right-wing Hindu group Bajrang Dal was initially handed the death sentence in a previous trial, but an appeal had the verdict reduced.
A high court judge stated that though the crime was highly condemned, it did not fall in the category of “the rarest of the rare” to warrant the death sentence.
The outcome was welcomed by the president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, Sajan K. George.
“We are against the death penalty, but we hope that Dara Singh serves his sentence in prison until the end of his days,” he told AsiaNews.
The victim, Pastor Graham Staines, worked with leprosy patients and ministered to the poor in Manoharpur, a remote tribal town in eastern India, for over 30 years before his death.
He was burnt alive while sleeping in a car with his children, aged eight and ten, when the group of up to 50 attackers poured petrol and set the vehicle ablaze.
During that time, hardline Hindu mobs often protested the conversion of tribal communities to Christianity. Staines was accused of forcibly converting poor Hindus.
All India Christian Council Secretary General Dr. John Dayal affirmed the body's stance against the death penalty "on moral and theological grounds" but he rejected the high court's comments regarding conversions by Christian missionaries.
“We do not want any court to pre-judge the matter of conversions and violence. The real root cause of strife in which Staines lost his life with his two kids was a misunderstanding of conversion," he said. "We have seen communal violence not only against Christians, but also on Muslims and Sikhs since India’s Independence.
The court stated in its ruling: "It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone's belief by way of ‘use of force,' provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other."
But the All India Christian Council said inquiries by the National Commission for Minorities, Right To Information requests, and other investigations have proven repeatedly there have been no fraudulent or forceful conversions by Christians in India anywhere, anytime. The council might move the Supreme Court to revise the reference at an appropriate time.
"We fear such remarks may negatively impact trials in Kandhamal, Orissa and future challenges to so-called ‘freedom of religion laws’ in various states,” said Dayal.
In 2003, an accomplice of Singh, Mahendra Hembram, was also sentenced to life in prison, while 11 others under trial were exonerated due to lack of evidence supporting their convictions.
Staines’ wife, Gladys, has expressed forgiveness toward Singh and his accomplices since the murder and requested continual prayers for solidarity in India.
Hindus account for over 80 percent of all 1.1 billion Indians, while 2.3 percent are Christians, according to Open Doors.
Though the constitution provides for freedom of religion, anti-conversion laws apply in six of the 28 states, where violence against Christians still exists.