FALLS CHURCH, Va. (ABP) — India's Supreme Court amended a ruling upholding a life-in-prison sentence for two men convicted of murdering a Baptist missionary and his two young sons 12 years ago by removing language that critics said appeared to condone vigilante violence intended to "teach a lesson" against proselytizing among the nation's tribal poor.
On Jan. 21 the Supreme Court upheld life sentences for Dara Singh and Mahendra Hembram. They were convicted of burning Staines, 58, and his sons Philip, 9, and Timothy, 7, alive while they slept in a van outside a church in Koenjhar district of Orissa, eastern India, on Jan. 22, 1999.
Declining to reinstate the death penalty for one of the killers, the 76-page judgment stated that "there is no justification for people committing conversions on the premise that one religion is better than the other."
In a paragraph explaining why they declined to reinstate a death penalty awarded by a jury in 2003 but commuted to life sentences two years later, the justices opined:
"In the case in hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity."
The language prompted protest among Indian Christians, who claimed it "de-legitimized" their constitutional right to profess, practice and propagate their faith. One group wrote an open letter Jan. 25 objecting to "gratuitous observations" and language "that seems to acknowledge vigilante action of criminals like Dara Singh who take upon themselves ‘to teach lessons’ to persons serving lepers and the poor."
Bowing to the pressure, the court changed its reasoning to the fact that 12 years has passed since the act was committed and that it could find no reason to enhance the sentence "in view of the factual position discussed in earlier paragraphs" of the ruling.
Staines moved to India from Australia in 1965 and for 34 years ran a leprosy home in the Mayurbhanj district about 900 miles southeast of New Delhi. Fanatic Hindu groups accused Staines of using the home as a cover for proselytizing, but independent investigations following the murders did not turn up any evidence that was true.
Church groups blamed growing intolerance against Christians in Orissa, the same state where violence against Christians broke out again in 2008. Neville Callam, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, condemned those attacks and pledged to "respond meaningfully to the needs and concerns of those who have suffered and will make the appropriate representations to make the case for respect for religious freedom in India."
In 1999, then BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz attributed the Staines' slayings to "religious intolerance and fanaticism, not only in India, but worldwide."
"Baptist Christians need to be in the forefront of defending religious freedom, but more than this, we must teach our own people the need for tolerance and respect for one another's cultures and traditions," Lotz said. "We must discuss with leaders of various religions the need for dignity respect and peaceful coexistence."
Neville Callam, current general secretary of the BWA, said he was "deeply disappointed" with the Supreme Court's handling of the case.
"Whatever position one takes on the question of capital punishment, the impression is given that the court appears to have made a decision and then sought a reason on which to ground it," Callam said.
"If the world’s largest democracy is to retain its position of respect among the nations, significant changes will need to be made on the question of respect for religious liberty," Callam said. "I urge that the courts reconsider the matter on which they have made a ruling that is dubious at best. Hardly can it be said that justice was done in the case of the Staines."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.