Attack against churches

Christians at receiving end amid growing violence

Print edition : January 14, 2022

Policemen deployed outside the church on Matiala Road in Dwarka, Delhi, a day after Hindutva activists vandalised the name board, on November 29, 2021. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Vijayesh Lal , general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. He says an attempt is being made to make the community scared and the government’s silence is of concern. Photo: credit??????????

Christian groups are worried about the growing violence against churches and the disinformation campaign against them.

It is fear rather than peace and solace that grips the devout attending church services in many parts of India. While the media has focussed on the repeated disruption of Muslims’ Friday prayers in Gurugram, Haryana, Christians have not had it any better with their Sunday mass. Incidents of disruption of Sunday services and even violence have been reported from Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. In one case, Hindutva activists attacked a school while examinations were on; in another case, copies of the Bible with the name of students drew their ire. In almost all cases, there have been unsubstantiated allegations of a prayer meeting or school being used for proselytisation.

On the last Sunday of November, members of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) vandalised a warehouse-turned-church in Dwarka, not far from Delhi’s international airport. Later, the police informed the media that they “received information on November 28 that a quarrel had broken out at a godown-turned-church on Matiala Road. On inquiry, we found that a group of residents and local miscreants vandalised the board that read ‘church’.”

The police registered two first information reports (FIRs), one against those accused of vandalism, and the other against those who had assembled peacefully for prayers. The latter were accused of violating the Delhi Disaster Management Act guidelines. Significantly, religious institutions in the capital had been allowed to reopen well before the incident. The police, however, argued that the warehouse-turned-church had not been designated as religious premises.

Less than two weeks later, Bajrang Dal and VHP activists allegedly tried to force their way into a church in Rohtak in Haryana, but were stopped by the police. The attackers alleged that the church was conducting religious conversion on its premises. The police, however, had received no complaints regarding conversion and claimed that the mob was contained after much commotion.

School attacked

On December 5, a Christian school in Madhya Pradesh’s Ganj Basoda was at the receiving end of Hindutva ire. Here, too, men claiming to be from the Bajrang Dal and the VHP stormed into St Joseph School, pelting stones while an examination was on. The school authorities alleged that the attack was the culmination of a series of attacks on it by Hindutva groups since November 25. Said John Anthony, the school principal: “On Sunday [December 5], they [Hindutva groups] threatened the school administration with dire consequences. We asked for police protection and only two constables were deployed the next day. On December 6, more than 200 people reached the school shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Dharma ki raksha kaun karega, hum karenge hum karenge’ [Who will protect religion? We will, we will] and started vandalising the property.”

Also read: Churches under attack

According to Father Prakash Louis, who had earlier this year authored a book on Father Stan Swamy’s trial and torment in jail, “the attackers alleged that the school was engaged in converting eight poor Hindu children”. He said: “It is significant to note that the attack took place when Class 12 students were taking their mathematics examination. The attackers forgot the fact that even on a Sunday, the school was open to provide educational opportunities to the children, 99 per cent of whom are Hindus. The students had a narrow escape since the management staff, risking their lives, moved the students to another part of the school.”

Attacks in Karnataka and Gujarat

There have been repeated instances of attacks on churches in Karnataka with unfounded allegations of conversion by coercion or inducement. Meanwhile, the Gujarat Police booked Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, under Sections 295A (deliberate and malicious acts to outrage feelings of any class by insulting its religious beliefs) and 298 (deliberately uttering words to wound the religious feelings of a person) of the Indian Penal Code. According to a complaint registered with the police, 13 Bibles were found in the library on the premises and the organisation was forcing girls to wear a cross and read the Bible at its shelter home. The organisation was accused of “luring young girls into Christianity and hurting the Hindu sentiments”. The FIR also invoked sections of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003, seeking to prohibit and punish forcible conversion. The organisation denied any wrongdoing.

VHP’s campaign

Close on the heels of these attacks, the VHP announced a Dharma Raksha Abhiyan from December 20 to 31 accusing Christian missionaries and Muslim clerics of forcible conversions. Said its working president Aloke Lal, “Under the campaign, public awareness will be enhanced through the distribution of literature, public meetings and social media to expose the conspiracies of the persons engaged in conversions.”

The VHP campaign has roused fear among Christian leaders who believe it targets their community. Said a leader on a note of anguish: “It is painful to note organisations such as the VHP launching an 11-day campaign against conversion which is plain targeting of the Christian community. This campaign may easily translate to physically targeting Christmas worship services across India, particularly in States which are leading in the tally of attacks against Christians, and it is worrying at several levels.”

‘Conversion is a bogey’

Said Vijayesh Lal, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), “The fresh spate of attacks against churches and Christian organisations are all part of a systematic strategy to once again centre-forward the term ‘conversion’ and use that bogey to attack Christians both physically and structurally. The propaganda machinery is doing what it does best and polarising the minds of the people against the Christian community using conversion as a bogey even when facts bear out a different story.”

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He said Christians were being attacked even when they gathered peacefully for prayers in prayer halls or homes. Said Lal: “An attempt is being made to make the community scared. The silence of the government and the inaction of the police and the irresponsible statements of political leaders coupled with disinformation in the media, social media in particular, make us worried.”

Their apprehensions are well founded. Already, quiet moves have begun to undermine the secular nature of the Constitution. On December 6, 2021, a Private Member’s Bill was introduced by a Bharatiya Janata Party member in the Rajya Sabha to replace the word ‘socialism’ from the Preamble of the Constitution with ‘equitable’. Earlier, in 2020, a public interest litigation (PIL) petition had been filed before the Supreme Court seeking to remove the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’, which were added in the Preamble by the 42nd amendment of the Constitution. The PIL said that the amendment made in 1976 was “antithetical to the constitutional tenets as well as the historical and cultural theme of India”.

Said Father Prakash Louis, “This clearly shows the intent of the fascist, authoritarian, autocratic, anti-minority, anti-citizen government and political party.”

Karnataka Bill

Meanwhile, following in the footsteps of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Karnataka is gearing up for an anti-conversion Bill that leaves open the possibility of conversion to Hinduism, while questioning the intention of citizens converting to minority faiths such as Christianity or Islam. The draft of the proposed Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, states that courts can order those found guilty of forcible conversion to pay a maximum compensation of Rs.5 lakh to the ‘victims’ and declare null and void marriages solemnised with the purpose of conversion. The Bill proposes a three-year jail term for forcible conversion of minors and those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

The Bill precedes the VHP’s demand for a strict anti-conversion law. It was timed with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for ‘ghar wapsi’, or the conversion of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Speaking at the Hindu Mahakumbh in Chitrakoot in Madhya Pradesh on December 15, Bhagwat said: “Take a pledge that I will persuade those who have converted to embrace Hinduism and also make sure that the Hindus don’t convert…. I also take a pledge to protect the dignity of our Hindu sisters.”

His well-thought-out statement came on the heels of a campaign by the influential Akhila Bharata Veershaiva Mahasabha asking its members in Karnataka to gather data on religious conversions with the aim of bringing them back into the fold of Hinduism; the reasoning is that Christians and Muslims of India were originally Hindus who converted out of fear or the expectation of monetary rewards.

Also read: Congress will revoke Anti-Conversion Bill in Karnataka within a week of coming to power or in first legislative session, says Siddaramaiah

Earlier, in the wake of reported attacks against Christians in north Karnataka, a fact-finding team of EFI’s Religious Liberty Commission, which visited eight towns and spoke to more than a dozen pastors, found that “an atmosphere of fear and apprehension prevails in the Christian community and among its grassroots clergy because of systematic targeting through a vicious hate campaign. Those involved in carrying out this hate campaign and fearmongering enjoy protection and possibly support of elements in the political and law and order apparatus in the state.”

The EFI team felt that the proposed anti-conversion law has emboldened non-state actors to target Christians who, incidentally, comprise only 1.87 per cent of Karnataka’s population. According to Vijayesh Lal, “what is unfortunate is that all conversions are being looked upon with suspicion even when the Constitution gives freedom of religion and propagation. It is also unfortunate that propagation is being interpreted as conversion by the media and the law enforcement machinery as well. An attempt is made to negate the contribution of Christians in nation-building and to relegate us to the margins of society.”

He said, “The Christian community has worked to build this nation and our contribution to nation-building is disproportionately higher than our percentage in the nation. These attacks, coupled with disinformation campaign against the community, are worrying and can snowball into major acts of violence. We have not forgotten Kandhamal [Odisha], where the community was targeted during Christmas 2007, and then from August-November 2008. We also remember Dangs [Gujarat], where 35 churches were burnt on Christmas eve in 1998.”

Prakash Louis says violence against Christians has grown by leaps and bounds. “These acts of violence include attack on church personnel and churches, sexual assault, murder, destruction of religious objects like cross, Holy Communion and the Bible besides destruction of institutions such as churches, schools and cemeteries. It also includes the so-called ‘ghar wapsi’ or reconversion by force.”

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