Two American citizens fined for attending an inauguration on tourist visa in India

(Photo: Unsplash/ConvertKit)

Assam authorities fined two American citizens alleging that they had preached in the state during the first week of February in violation of the conditions of their tourist visa—a claim their host refutes.

The media was notified by the Superintendent of Police of the Sonitpur district of Assam that James Michael Flinchum, about 73 years old, and Matthew Jon Boone, 64, had been taken into custody from the Baptist Christian Hospital at Tezpur's Mission Chariali.

Their Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) papers permitted Flinchum admission beginning in October 2023 and multiple entries to Boone beginning in December 2023. They were allowed to engage in "Recreation/Sight-Seeing" activities under their tourist visa, which the Assam police alleged were illegal.

They were charged with engaging in religious activities at several locations by the government.

On January 31, the two men went to the Baptist Mission Complex in Tezpur for the opening of the North Bank Baptist Christian Association. After that, on February 2, they were taken into custody at the hospital and fined.

While media reports said that the duo were arrested, Sushanta Biswa Sharma the Superintendent of Police of Sonitpur district told media that the police had not arrested the two foreign nationals but had detained and fined them 500 USD each. Sharma also alleged that the two men had deliberately violated their visa terms and so the police had been following up with authorities to blacklist them.

Speaking to Christian Today, the general secretary of North Bank Baptist Christian Association (NBBCA) Chowaram Daimari denied the detention of the two visitors.

“They were neither detained nor deported, but were fined. After the fine was paid, they were asked to carry-on their tourism freely as planned,” said Daimari.

The allegation of conversion

Flinchum and Boone stayed in the Baptist Christian Hospital campus on their arrival to Tezpur on January 31.

Flinchum was the ex-associate director of Baptist General Conference (BGC) – the organisation that founded the Baptist Christian Hospital, Tezpur in 1954.

Though the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) of Sonitpur district, Madhurima Das was quoted by media outlets as saying, “A Baptist association had held a building inauguration function in Tezpur and Baptist leaders from different parts of Assam had gathered there. The two US nationals were also present there. The building itself is incomplete, it is half-done, so we have to say that they had come for conversion activities. Since they were in the country on tourist visas, they cannot participate in any religious meet”, Daimari from the NBBCA told Christian Today that the proposed office of the North Bank Baptist Christian Association is in the hospital compound and as Flinchum and Boone were staying in the campus they attended the inauguration function, which was on February 1.

“Flinchum was once closely associated with the hospital, hence we requested him to pray and share his thought on the building,” said Daimari. “There is no question of ‘conversion activities’ taking place as stated by some media outlets, since all the participants attending the inauguration function were Christians,” he added.

Furthermore, he told Christian Today that the building construction is 90 percent complete and that the contract was given 9-months ago.

“It is wrong to say that the building is half-done. It is fully complete inside and only some painting portions remain outside. The contractor had agreed to finish the paint job before the inauguration which he could not finish. We had already sent all our invitations for the inauguration and thus we did not change the date,” clarified Daimari.

The North Bank Baptist Christian Association in co-operation with Baptist General Conference released a Press Statement on 10 February 2024 that said, “After function was over two men came from police station and asked about the function. I (Daimari) explained them what was happening. On next day February 2, 2024 while they (two Americans) were visiting Kaziranga National park the same police personnel asked photos of the inauguration function. After receiving the photos they came and met the tourists at hospital when they arrived from the national park. Their passport and visas were checked. After sometime they were informed that they need to pay $500 each for violation of tourist visa norms. There was no detention or deportation,” read the statement.

Flinchum and Boone left Tezpur on February 3 for Guwahati and left India about three days later according to Daimari.

The Assam government in October 2022 had instructed all the districts in Assam to monitor foreigners who arrive in the state and to keep a close check on them if they indulge in “conversion activities”, which is in violation of visa norms. They were also instructed to monitor religious gatherings and check the travel documents of the foreigners who are found attending any religious gatherings.

Shocked at the inauguration function being called a religious gathering, Daimari concluded, “Praying in a building inauguration does not make it a religious function. I feel that they are interpreting the law according to their understanding.”