A pattern of persecution

Published : Dec 19, 1998 00:00 IST

There has been a dramatic increase in incidents of violence against Christians in India since 1997, and there is a pattern in the process.

WHEN Christians across India observed December 4 as protest day, their action not only articulated the anguish of the community but brought to the fore the growing sense of insecurity among the minorities ever since the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in New Delhi occurred. Justifying their fears is the fact that the number of incidents of atrocities against Christians that have taken place in 1997 and 1998 is far higher than those reported in over 30 years before 1997.

Data compiled by the New Delhi-based United Christian Forum for Human Rights show that the number of registered cases of violence against Christians between 1964 and 1996 was 38. There were 15 such cases in 1997. In 1998 the number has gone up to 90. The number of cases of violence against Christians in Gujarat has been 38 in 1998, according to the Forum. The steep rise in such incidents suggests a pattern.

The Forum has found that there were five cases of rape of nuns this year in the country. Nine nuns have been killed and 25 nuns manhandled. Sixteen priests and pastors have been killed and 11 churches or chapels destroyed or set on fire.

An examination of some of the major incidents since 1997 is revealing. In September 1997, Fr. Christudas was beaten, tortured, and paraded naked in Dumka in Bihar. In October 1997, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists disrupted prayer meetings in Ludhiana, where six Christians were injured in police action. There was a series of attacks against Christian tribal people in December last year allegedly by members of Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, at Pipalwada in Vyara taluk of Gujarat's Surat district.

In January this year, Fr. William Topno, a priest, was seriously injured in an attack on him in Bonsgaon, Bihar. Topno, who worked among the tribal people of the region, sought to empower them. This was resisted by local businessmen. In February this year a group of Christians in Ayyampalayam in Erode district of Tamil Nadu was attacked allegedly by VHP workers from Coimbatore. A hospital run by the Catholic Hospital Association of India was ransacked allegedly by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activists in Latur, Maharashtra.

On March 2 this year, at Padra in Vadodara district of Gujarat, people who were distributing handbills about prayer meeting of Christians were beaten by volunteers of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the Durga Vahini. The victims, who included foreign tourists, were also forced to chant the names of some gods. On March 4, the VHP-Bajrang Dal combine disturbed a Jesus Mahotsav meeting at the Vadodara polo ground. Another Christian convention organised at the venue in April was attacked.

On April 11, at Palanpur in Gujarat, a gathering of Christians at the municipal hall during Passion Week was attacked by about 35 VHP-Bajrang Dal activists. On April 16, a church under construction was razed by the gram panchayat authorities at Naroda, near Ahmedabad, in the presence of a large, armed gathering. The building was being constructed unauthorisedly. But the panchayat had not warned the church authorities or given them a hearing before taking action. Again, a school run there by Christians was vandalised on the ground that Sanskrit was not taught. Among the articles damaged in the school was a statue of Virgin Mary.

In June, St. Xavier's School in Surat was the target when the Deputy Collector came with the police to search for and confiscate the records of admissions.

In July, at Kapadwanj, Nadiad district, the body of Samuel Christian, a member of the Methodist Church, was exhumed from the cemetery and dumped near the church, allegedly by VHP activists. At Zankhav village of Mangrol taluk, Surat district, a group of persons stoned and broke into a school run by Jesuit priests on July 16.

Copies of the Bible were burnt by VHP and Bajrang Dal workers at the I.P. Mission School at Rajkot on July 20. The VHP said that the school authorities had sought to convert the pupils to Christianity by asking them to sign on the last page of copies of the New Testament, under a statement that they had accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour. The school authorities denied this claim. The copies of the Bible were distributed by the organisation, Gideon's International.

In July, the BJP Government of Delhi threatened to close down churches saying that the serving of sacramental wine violated Prohibition that was applicable to places of worship. The Government of Sahib Singh Verma ignored the fact that the serving of wine had been a religious tradition and that only a minuscule quantity was served to the devotee. The Delhi Government dropped the move after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee disapproved of it in Parliament.

In September, armed tribal people broke into a convent in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh, ransacked the chapel and raped four nuns. The culprits have been caught, and the trial is expected to begin soon. Statements by senior VHP leaders such as Acharya Giriraj Kishore and the BJP's B.L. Sharma 'Prem' justifying the attack as a response to the "proselytisation" efforts of the missionaries highlighted the link between the Jhabua incident and the spate of attacks against Christians elsewhere in the country.

In October, Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya made fun of healing sessions conducted by the Christian community and warned the evangelist Roger Houstma of legal action if he continued such meetings in Gandhinagar. Houstma's meetings were attacked at Rajkot on October 10.

MEANWHILE, in Gujarat, Muslim residents of Randikpur had to flee to a neighbouring village after a love affair between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl came to light, infuriating the local VHP unit. The Muslim residents returned to their homes after a long wait, after the police ensured their protection. Tension mounted in Karnataka when Bajrang Dal and VHP activists threatened to "liberate" a Sufi shrine in Chickmagalur district on December 3.

The minorities' right to protest too appears to be at stake. After the Christian community observed December 4 as protest day, the Keshubhai Patel Government sought to victimise Christian schools in Gujarat, which, as in many other parts of the country, remained closed on December 4. The State Government has issued notices to these schools asking them to explain why the grants-in-aid to them should not be cut as they remained closed when Inspectors from the District Education Office visited them.

Will the Prime Minister's statement on December 5 disowning the perpetrators of violence against Christians, and complimenting Christians for their immense contribution to the nation's development make any difference to the state of affairs?

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