A Catholic priest in India will face trial for allegations of hate speech during an interreligious meeting last year.
Father George Ponnaiah is a priest of the Diocese of Kuzhithurai, in southern India. The accusations against him stem from a meeting in July 2021 against coronavirus restrictions on worship and the construction of new churches.
During the meeting, Ponnaiah allegedly made comments against the local government and leaders of India’s ruling, pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. He was arrested several days later and released on bail.
The Madras High Court, one of three high courts in India, ruled Ponnaiah should face trial for his comments at the meeting.
The priest has denied the charges and has said videos of his comments at the meeting were deceptively edited.
“My speech has been edited and circulated on social media to show that I hurt the sentiments of Hindu brothers and sisters,” Ponnaiah said, according to UCA News. “None of us on the dais said anything hurting religious sentiments. If my speech hurt anyone, I apologize wholeheartedly.”
Persecution against Christians in India is on the rise. A recent report suggested that Christians in India were the targets of 305 violent incidents in the first nine months of 2021.
Most recently, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs temporarily suspended the Missionaries of Charity’s eligibility for foreign donations.
India, the world’s second-most populous country after China, is ranked 10th on the World Watch List for the persecution of Christians compiled by the advocacy group Open Doors.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) listed India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade.
“The government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” the commission’s 2021 report said.