Attacks on Christians

Church as target

Print edition :

A candlelight vigil to protest against the rape of a 75-year-old nun during an armed assault on a convent school, in New Delhi March 16, 2015. Photo: REUTERS

Christian religious leaders’ concern about the atmosphere of intolerance in the country is born out of the reality of increasing violence against their followers by right-wing elements in several States.

The Sangh Parivar’s attacks on Christians continued with fervour in the fourth year of Narendra Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister. In the face of relentless attacks by right-wing Hindu groups, sections of the Christian religious leadership addressed the issue head-on. They joined the other persecuted communities, Dalits and Muslims, to raise their voice against repeated calls to Hinduise the nation.

The Archbishops of the Catholic faith from Delhi and Goa, Anil J.T. Couto and Filipe Neli Ferrao, in letters written to their respective dioceses described the political atmosphere in the country as turbulent, which they said was a threat to the secular and democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution. Couto urged the various parishes of Delhi to pray for the country before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It is not unusual for churches to pray for the nation, its leadership and various institutions from time to time. Such communications seldom cross the congregational circles. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies took offence to the letters and kicked up a political storm.

They saw them as a direct threat to the Modi administration. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh saw the imprint of a Vatican conspiracy in the letters and accused the church of denigrating India. The right-wing groups accused the church of fuelling distrust against the Modi government and conspiring to install governments in India that run on directions from the Vatican.

The letters were seen as divisive and as part of a move to mobilise people against the BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Party president Amit Shah, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Giriraj Singh condemned the letters, while the rare Christian in the Cabinet, K.J. Alphons, said the Archbishop was not the entire church and his was an isolated voice in the community. He termed the letter as “unfair” to the government.

In a tweet, Subramanian Swamy, BJP Member of Parliament, urged Modi to cease all diplomatic ties with the Vatican. He said the Vatican Embassy in the capital city should be sealed as the Delhi Archbishop was a formal nominee of the Vatican.

At 2.3 per cent, Christians constitute a very small proportion of India’s population, as per Census 2011. The clergy and the laity in the capital is a much smaller group. So, why does the BJP see their comments as an affront? It is an ideological battle and the saffron party’s stated agenda is to build a Hindu rashtra where all others are perceived as enemies who must be ousted. Besides, the Sangh Parivar has always been peeved at the missionary activities of Christians. Their counter-campaigns in tribal areas, ghar wapsi (religious re-conversion) activities, and attacks on convent schools in the past are manifestations of anger and intolerance.

Police indifference

Even as the Central government ran a campaign to discredit the church leadership, stray attacks on lay Christians continued in several States. In January, 12 instances of violence against the community were recorded by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), a Delhi-based organisation. “It has been a painful four years for the Christian community, but 2017 and the first four months of 2018 have been one of the most traumatic,” John Dayal, former president of the All India Catholic Union, told Frontline. Christians in Mohanpur in Jehanabad district of Bihar; Uppada village under Kothappali police station in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh; Javanga village in Geedam tehsil of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh; and Bhangarwad, Andheri East in Mumbai were attacked and told to stop conducting prayer meetings. In most of the cases, the police refused to file written complaints and in some instances sided with the aggressors. The Religious Liberty Commission of the EFI, which lists cases of persecution and runs a national helpline along with the United Christian Forum and the Alliance Defending Freedom India, documented at least 351 cases of violence in 2017. This was, said John Dayal, by no means an exhaustive compilation as it was based on voluntary reporting and civil society investigations. “Most cases go unreported either because the victim is terrified or the police, especially in the northern States, just turn a blind eye and refuse to record the mandatory FIR [first information report]. On an average, 250 incidents have been recorded and verified each year.”

On January 16, in Sihal village of Nowshera tehsil in Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir, a 1,000-strong mob chanting “Jai Sri Ram” attacked Pastor Jeewer Joeswa's church and set it on fire after Seema Devi, 23, who had converted to Christianity about eight months ago, died after prolonged sickness. They accused the pastor of forcefully converting her and blamed him for her death. An FIR was registered and eight assailants were arrested, but they were released on the same day. Two days later, at Simrauli village of Hapur block in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh, the station house officer of Babugarh police station prevented 10 Christian families from going to Church. Since then, they have not attended church services and live in constant fear of being booked under the false charge of religious conversion. In Coimbatore, Pastor T. Simon Rajan of the Apostolic Church was summoned to the local police station. A complaint was filed against him for creating noise pollution during regular church service and prayer meetings. He was told that he could not conduct prayer meetings without the permission of the District Collector. Earlier, a mob had thrown stones at the church building in an attempt to stop the service.

Trampling on rights

Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of EFI and national director for the Religious Liberty Commission of the EFI, said: “It is distressing to see even private worship being attacked by Hindu right-wing activists violating the privacy and sanctity of an individual or a family and trampling upon their constitutional rights. The instances of attacks on churches on Sundays and other important days of worship such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas have increased. It is noted with much sadness that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly being used by non-state actors to stop and disrupt worship in churches and in homes, especially in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Christian children going to attend Bible camps with their parents’ permission being taken into custody and detained for days on suspicion of conversion is bizarre and unheard of. Also worrisome is the attitude shown by some State governments and their heads who use public money to denounce Christianity publicly. This must stop, and the various State governments and the Union government must move beyond mere lip service and uphold fundamental rights, especially the right to freedom of religion or belief, through concrete action and enforcement of law, without partiality.”

On January 20, Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy of Maknayeem Church in Adayalacheri village in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu was found dead in his room. He had been facing opposition and stone pelting from Hindu fundamentalists. In 2016, they demolished the shed where Periyaswamy and his church members met. The Kalpakkam police initially refused to entertain a complaint for murder, but after church members and pastors from neighbouring villages staged a road blockade, it allowed them to lodge a complaint. The relatives and church members of the pastor alleged that there was no ground to believe that the pastor committed suicide.

In Singavatam in Telangana, retired sub-inspector Anandham, a member of a Gospel team, was carrying Bibles for distribution when persons affiliated to the RSS stopped him. They tore the Bibles and set the cartons on fire. A video of the act went viral on social media. In Soroda Poli in Ganjam district in Odisha, 16 Christian families of the Blessing Youth Missions Church were forced to reconvert to Hinduism by Hindu fundamentalists. A statement issued by the EFI said, the RLC, which was started in 1998, “is also alive to the persecution of, and pressure on, other religious minorities, caste discrimination against Dalits, and the situation of women in general and when they are trapped during religious or other group violence. It is, therefore, also deeply concerned at the many men, Muslims and Dalits, who have been lynched in the guise of punishing them for trafficking in cattle. EFIRLC has also been part of civil society initiatives, fact finding committees, and peace initiatives wherever it could. It recognises that issues of cow, caste and attempts to force Hindu religious codes on schools also impact the Christian community.”

The RLC called upon the government to ensure that the constitutional provisions for religious freedom, right to life and freedom were available to the poorest person in even remote villages. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its World Report 2018, pulled up the Indian government for failing to stop or credibly investigate vigilante attacks against minority religious communities in 2017. “Indian authorities have proven themselves unwilling to protect minority religious communities and other vulnerable groups from frequent attack,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW. “There needs to be a serious effort to prevent future attacks and to prosecute all those responsible for the violence.”

Non-state actors’ role

With the BJP government actively discriminating against minorities, non-state actors have received political patronage to indulge in violence. In what can be termed as a gimmick, the controversial Hindu hardliner, Om Swami Maharaj, and his cronies stamped on images of Pope Francis near the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi. He accused Indian Christians of promoting terrorism and Maoism. He demanded that they leave the country or face expulsion. Om Swami was dismissed from the television show “Big Boss”. Various people have accused him of molestation, use of foul language and misbehaviour.

The atmosphere of all-round hatred and intolerance perpetuated by the BJP has led to some of its own supporters being trolled. Amruta Fadanavis, wife of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, was attacked on social media for supporting a Christmas-themed charity event. She was accused of encouraging Christians in their alleged efforts at “harvesting souls”. She had to counter this charge by reaffirming that she was a proud Hindu and celebrated all festivals. In another case, Ashish Shelar, BJP member of the Maharashtra Assembly, was trolled for inviting Mumbai residents to attend a Christmas festival in the city. Among Shelar’s detractors was the chief strategy officer of the right-wing magazine Swarajya, who criticised the event—which featured a music competition, food stalls and sand football tournament on Mumbai's Chowpatty beach—as “a cultural war against Hindus”.

New groups

John Dayal said new right-wing groups were coming up very fast. These groups were often local players, indirectly connected to the Sangh Parivar, were more violent than the RSS and often enjoyed the patronage of the BJP and the governments in BJP-ruled States. They acted with impunity and expected to get away with whatever they did. Like Muslims, Chrsitians were not safe in India, he said, but the structural threat to the freedom of religion of Indian Christian citizens was more interesting because it was not as stark as physical violence and it did not show too often, but was a potent weapon.

“When laws are used against a community or people, there is little that one can do. The anti-conversion laws are an example. Many a time legal provisions are used to harass Christian and other minority institutions. The Juvenile Justice Act is a case in point and has been used effectively to close down Christian orphanages that were serving and helping the poorest of the poor.”

By denying reservation and affirmative action for Christian and Muslim Dalits, the state offers an incentive to the majority religion and encourages conversion to Hinduism, he said. The BJP-ruled Uttarakhand became the seventh State to pass an anti-conversion law, which is largely used to prevent Hindus, especially those from “lower” castes from converting to more equitable religions. The other States where such laws prevail are Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand. “What is perhaps most disturbing is that Hindutva has become generic. What was until recently considered as the perception of the fringe certainly seems to have become the mood of the nation and the way the common people of India think. The Church and the average Christian today is viewed with suspicion. This did not happen overnight. It has taken a propaganda that has lasted almost more than 20 years. The RSS and its affiliates seem to have been very successful in brainwashing the Indian people,” he said.

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