Christians as target during the lockdown

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Photo: By Special Arrangement

John Dayal, activist. “Not since the pogrom in 2007-08 in Kandhamal district of Odisha have so many people died for professing the Christian faith,” he said. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Christian institutions allege increase in violence against their members during the lockdown.

At least two reports by Christian organisations in India say that life has been precarious for the members of the minority community during the lockdowns imposed because of COVID. They were ostracised, threatened, intimidated, harassed, and in some cases fatally assaulted, the reports say. There were even instances of prayers being disrupted.

According to a report released in mid-July by the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), there were 135 cases of attack against Christian houses, churches and individuals until June this year. The EFI, founded in 1951, is an umbrella body of more than 65,000 churches across the country.

The incidents include lynching, social boycott and attempts to hinder worship. The report states: “A lynching, community ostracisation, concerted attempts to stop worship and gospel-sharing mark the 135 cases registered by the EFI in the first half of 2020.”

Says Vijayesh Lal, its general secretary: “We thought attacks on Christians would die down during the lockdown when businesses, markets, schools and colleges were closed. When nobody would venture out. But we were mistaken. The attacks on Christians increased during the lockdown. There were 33 attacks in March and 21 in June. There has been a further increase in July.”

A few days after the EFI released its report, Persecution Relief, an organisation that aims to protect the right to worship guaranteed by the Constitution, released its half-yearly report stating that hate crimes against Christians in India had risen by an alarming 40.87 per cent in spite of the nationwide lockdown. It records 293 cases of hate crimes against Christians, including five rapes and six murders, compared with 208 incidents last year.

According to Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief, the aim of the report is to draw attention to the “intensifying hostility against the Christian minority in India which has become progressively common. The cases chronicled in this report are only a fraction of the actual violence perpetuated and reported on the ground.”

According to Thomas, six murders, “influenced by religious bigotry”, were recorded in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha in the last three months. He says hate crimes have been committed against Christians in as many as 22 States in the country.

Uttar Pradesh fares worst

According to the Persecution Relief report, the maximum number of attacks against Christians (63) has been in Uttar Pradesh. That is, every fifth incident of attack on Christians in the country happened in Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu came second with 28 cases, including two hate crimes resulting in death, and the burning of a church structure. Chhattisgarh accounted for 22 cases, including a rape and the murder of a widow, and Jharkhand closely followed with 21 cases and one murder. Karnataka recorded 20 cases of attacks against Christians in the first half of 2020.

The report mentions 51 hate crimes of heinous nature against women and children, of which five were rape cases. There were 37 cases of boycott and ostracisation, rendering many Christian families homeless and forcing them to hide in jungles or stay at temporary shelters or safe houses. There were 130 cases of harassment, threats and intimidation and 80 incidents of physical assault, according to the Persecution Relief report.

“Over the past seven years, India has risen from No. 31 to No. 10 in the ‘Open Doors’ World Watch List, ranking just behind Iran in persecution severity. As of 2020, the USCIRF [the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom] has listed India as a CPC (Country of Particular Concern),” says Thomas. Open Doors, its website says, is an outreach to persecuted Christians in the most high-risk places. The World Watch List is an annual report prepared by its research team.

‘Impunity in administrative apparatus’

Condemning the targeted violence against the community, the EFI has sought the immediate arrest of the purveyors of hate violence. It turned down as false the allegations of coercive conversion, which is often cited as the reason for the violence.

The EFI report states: “The absolute sense of impunity generated in the administrative apparatus of India by the lockdown during the COVID pandemic, and the consequent absence of civil society on the streets, has aggravated the environment of hate and violence against Christians in major states and the National Capital Territory.”

Cases under-reported

The reports suggest that crimes against Christians are under-reported. The police are not willing to register complaints in some cases and when they do so, the incidents seldom get reported in the media, the reports say. “With the courts being virtually closed and the police failing to record all complaints, the access to justice is severely restricted,” the report says.

Significantly, the EFI did not regard the much-reported custodial death of Bennicks and Jayaraj in Tamil Nadu in June as a case of targeted killing of Christians as propagated in some quarters. The organisation also did not read communal motives into the murder of pastor Balwinder Singh in Ferozpur in Punjab in July end.

Incidentally, both reports claimed that the most number of attacks against Christians took place under Yogi Adityanath’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. The EFI report put the number of attacks against Christians in the State at 32. In early July, one Vikash was assaulted in Azamgarh at the residence of Sunita Maurya during a prayer service. Last year, Sunita Maurya was herself subjected to physical abuse, with a hot cup of tea poured on her allegedly at a police station.

“It is difficult to control attacks these days. The poison has reached very deep, right up to the grass-roots level. Until a few years back, there was only the Bajrang Dal whose members were often involved in such attacks. Now new bodies have mushroomed,” says Lal. Apparently, groups like Abhinav Bharat, Modi Sena, Amar Sena, and Dharm Sena have a crucial role in many of the recent incidents. Their volunteers go to almost every lane, every village, and speak about conversion to whip up an anti-minority atmosphere.

The atmosphere of hatred generated by these groups, says Lal, has resulted in attacks on not just Christian houses and churches but in the disruption of private prayers too. Says Lal: “The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has percolated to the grass-roots level. Until 1990 or so, the term conversion was not heard of in everyday life except maybe in the Sangh circles. But today, a mere mention of the word Christian evokes images of conversion. It is due to sustained indoctrination over a long period of time. The lockdown attacks are a manifestation of that indoctrination.”

The worst manifestation of hatred came on June 4, when a group of people crushed to death with a stone a 14-year-old boy at Odisha’s Kenduguda village in Malkangiri district and then chopped the body to pieces before burying them in several places. In the first information report (FIR), the police noted that the victim and his family had adopted Christianity three years ago and that since then, a few villagers had been harassing them. He had been attacked in February this year.

Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh

The EFI suggests that the increase in number of anti-Christian violence in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh is because of the greater confidence among the minorities to report the crime thanks to the change in political dispensation in these States. “In Chhattisgarh, now at number three from its earlier sixth position (in the crime list), the rise is attributed to Christians more willing to report violence in the Bastar region where there had been so far a blanket of fear of both underground militant Maoist forces and the armoured police,” the EFI report says.

According to it, Chhattisgarh saw six documented cases of targeted violence against Christians in April alone. This happened after Christians who were summoned to village meetings refused to participate in religious rituals against their conscience. They were apparently under pressure to recant, and when they refused to do so were assaulted.

In three separate incidents on May 5, May 7 and May 18, in Bastar and Dantewada districts, Christians faced stiff opposition to bury their dead. They were told that since they had not followed village religious rituals, they could not bury the dead there. “There have been 15 such confirmed incidents in these districts since 2019,” according to the EFI report.

Things were worse in neighbouring Jharkhand, which had earlier reported a spate of lynching incidents targeting Muslims. During lockdown this year, Christians were at the receiving end. The EFI report says: “Jharkhand saw four major assault cases in May alone. Though no one was killed, women were molested. On May 25, local authorities had banned Christians in Pundiguttu village from getting ration from the government outlet. In Jharkhand too there were cases of Christians being socially ostracised. The Pundiguttu village panchayat in May ordered the Christian converts to rejoin their parent faith at pain of being denied water from the community well and other penalties.”

The Pundiguttu case brings to memory the attempted Ghar Wapsi incident in Agra in 2014 when some Muslim families were sought to be lured to Hinduism with sacks of wheat and rice.

Increasing violence

The attacks on Christians are becoming increasingly common. In 2014, Bajrang Dal activists attacked 12 pastors in Greater Noida in western Uttar Pradesh during a private meeting. At the local police station they were advised to discontinue the meeting. In 2017, goons attacked a Christian woman putting her kids to sleep after prayer in Dalli Rajhara in Chhattisgarh and asked her not to pray.

“While the churches have often been attacked in the past, now it is becoming increasingly difficult even to offer prayers even in private. There are objections to Sunday prayers at home. The malaise is much deeper in the interiors and tribal areas. Even a regular prayer is considered a step towards conversion. First a prayer is attacked. Then a social boycott follows,” says Lal, adding that “most of the attacks are by local people. They are mostly OBCs [Other Backward Classes] who have been brainwashed by self-styled outfits like the Abhinav Bharat and the Modi Sena, besides the Bajrang Dal.”

‘Government in denial’

Activist and veteran journalist John Dayal puts the findings of the various Christian bodies in perspective: “Five murders of Christians in the COVID-impacted first six months of 2020 mark a new high in the viciousness of targeted hate against the community. Not since the pogrom in 2007-08 in Kandhamal district of Odisha have so many people died for professing the Christian faith. That they include pastors, young boys and women adds to the tragedy. The half-yearly reports by Persecution Relief and Evangelical Fellowship of India spell out the gravity of the targeted violence against Christians in India. The government is not just in denial, but positively on the side of the assailants, it would seem. The ruling party’s cadres where it is in power enjoy immunity, but surprisingly even where other ideologies govern States, the Sangh and its groups are aggressive and seem to defy the law. The international organisations, including the UN bodies, seem helpless in the face of government obduracy and the ruling party using the nationalistic rhetoric and sovereignty argument to insulate itself from all international inspection and exhortation.”

According to Dayal, the data “as reported by the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Morning Star News and the Persecution Relief” carry authenticity to the numbers reported.

Lal says there have been instances when policemen have asked peaceful worshippers, including pastors, not to go ahead with their religious meeting, saying it is not allowed in “Hindu Rashtra”. “Are we still ruled by the Constitution or the mob which attacked houses, desecrated churches, objected to gospel-sharing even during the lockdown?” he asks.