The Republic of India, the world’s largest democracy, comprises 28 states and nine Union Territories and is a land of diverse ethnicity, religion, language and geography. Its capital is New Delhi and the most populous city is Mumbai. While the vast majority of Indians are Hindu, there are enough Muslims (14% – about 172 million people) to make India the country with the third largest Muslim population in the world. Over 430 languages are spoken, with Hindi and English the main official languages.
India has nuclear power and a booming IT sector and space industry but also has hundreds of millions of rural poor and urban slum-dwellers, with the world’s greatest disparity between rich and poor. Infrastructure is inadequate, and there is widespread corruption.
Christianity is believed to have reached India in the first century and has an honoured legacy of charity, schools and hospitals. The Indian constitution guarantees religious freedom, and Christians enjoy freedom in much of the country, but in rural areas they are facing increasing persecution from Hindu extremists motivated by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist ideology), while the introduction of “anti-conversion laws” in several states has led to increased violence against Christians.
There has been an upsurge in persecution of non-Hindus since the 2014 landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party were returned to office in May 2019, causing concern among members of religious minorities.
Upsurge in persecution
Church in Chains partner organisation Persecution Relief, which documents hate crimes against Christians in India, recorded an increasing number of cases each year between 2016 and 2019: 330 cases in 2016, 440 cases in 2017, 447 cases in 2018 and 527 cases in 2019. Threats, harassment and intimidation were the most common forms of persecution in 2019 (199 cases) followed by church attacks (104) and physical violence (85). Seventeen church buildings were burnt and four Christians were murdered.
In many cases, a single incident results in widespread suffering – each church attack, for instance, affects multiple individuals – and the number of incidents recorded is probably far less than the number that occur, as many incidents are not reported due to fear of reprisals or lack of confidence in the justice system.
In 2020 the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded 327 instances of violence and discrimination against Christians including five murders, the destruction of six church buildings, 17 cases of worship being stopped and 66 cases of false accusation or arrest. The EFI’s annual report, published on 14 January 2021, points out that the list is not exhaustive as many incidents go unreported “because of the fear of victims of further atrocities if they stand up to their tormentors”.
The report adds, “The most alarming development has been the expansion and scope of the notorious Freedom of Religion Acts, which are popularly known as the anti-conversion laws, earlier enforced in seven states, to many more states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.”
Hindus who convert to Christianity face persecution, especially those from low castes. The ancient Hindu caste system is still a major factor in Indian society, especially in rural communities where there is far less social mobility than in cities. Discrimination based on caste is constitutionally illegal but it persists throughout much of India.
The caste system assigns each person a place in the social hierarchy, from the privileged Brahmins at the top to the downtrodden Dalits (formerly known as “Untouchables”) at the bottom. There has been huge growth in Christianity amongst the Dalits and other low castes – nearly 80% of Indian Christians are from Dalit or tribal backgrounds and they face discrimination as Christian and Muslim converts are excluded from the government’s affirmative action benefit system.
This system was designed to redress the socio-economic exclusion of what are officially known as the “Scheduled Castes”, including Dalits. Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits qualify, making them eligible for free education and reserves jobs in the government and seats in state legislature, but if a Dalit converts to Christianity or Islam he or she is deemed to have left the caste system and is excluded from the benefit system. Christian and Muslim Dalits throughout India are campaigning for equal rights for all Dalits.
The Kandhamal Massacre
The worst ever anti-Christian violence in India occurred in the Kandhamal district of Orissa state (now Odisha) in 2007 and 2008, when armed Hindu militants killed over 135 Christians, injured more than 18,000, burned hundreds of churches and thousands of homes and left over 55,000 Christians homeless. Many of the Christians were told to “convert or die”, sometimes at gunpoint, and the militants bombed three refugee camps.
Communal violence against Christians in Kandhamal district had begun in December 2007 but it intensified in August 2008, following the assassination of a Hindu priest, local leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his followers. Maoist insurgents claimed responsibility, but Hindu extremists blamed and targeted Christians.
Most cases relating to the violence were dismissed or resulted in acquittals; Christians called to give evidence in court were intimidated, and many witnesses were afraid to testify. In November 2012, twelve people were sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for their involvement in the violence, while ten others were acquitted.
In December 2008, seven Christians were falsely accused of the priest’s murder and were arrested and imprisoned. In September 2013, they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In July 2014, a Maoist Naxalite leader who had claimed responsibility for the Swami’s murder in October 2008 was at last arrested. He was convicted of the murder in May 2019. Between May and November 2019, after the seven Christians had spent more than ten years in prison, the Supreme Court ordered that they be released on bail. They still have to be acquitted by the Odisha High Court.
Church in Chains in Action
In July 2020, Pamela Coulter (Advocacy Officer) and David Turner (Director) were invited to present the Indian Ambassador to Ireland, Mr Sandeep Kumar with the petition signed by seventeen TDs and Senators in late 2018 expressing concern about the growth of attacks on Christians by Hindu militants.
In January 2019 Church in Chains wrote to the Indian Ambassador to request a meeting to present a petition signed by 17 members of the Oireachtas calling for protection for Indian Christians and in March 2019 a Church in Chains delegation had a meeting at the Indian Embassy to discuss the issue.
In September 2018, Shibu Thomas, founder of Church in Chains partner organisation Persecution Relief visited Ireland to speak at Church in Chains’ annual conference. During his visit, he also met with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
In February 2018, Church in Chains published a report titled “OFFICIAL INDIA: ON THE SIDE OF THE MILITANTS” (see below) in response to the upsurge in attacks on Christians in India by Hindu militants. The report, which documents incidents of persecution and contains recommendations for action, was sent to the Indian Ambassador to Ireland, to Simon Coveney (Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs) and to the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. The report formed the basis of a meeting with the Joint Committee in March 2018.
Church in Chains also supports the campaign of justice for Christian Dalits – the speaker at our 2014 conference, Dr Joseph D’Souza, is international president of the Dignity Freedom Network (formerly the Dalit Freedom Network), president of the All India Christian Council and former international vice-president of Operation Mobilisation.
Church in Chains report on attacks in 2017
In February 2018, Church in Chains published a report titled “OFFICIAL INDIA: ON THE SIDE OF THE MILITANTS” in response to the upsurge in attacks on Christians in India by Hindu militants – attacks that have the tacit approval of local police and government officials. The report documents a representative sample of 57 serious incidents of persecution of Christians during the period July – December 2017, almost certainly a gross understatement of the actual number of incidents during the period.
The organisation Persecution Relief, which supports Christians in India, recorded a total of 736 incidents of attacks against Indian Christians in 2017. While the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded 351 hate crimes against Christians during 2017, the authors of its annual report said that figure was not exhaustive, explaining: “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 First Information Report.”
Like the Church in Chains report, the EFI report said that non-Hindu communities are being targeted “with impunity”. It listed four murders, 110 incidents of physical violence and arrest, 70 of “threats and harassment”, 64 occasions when worship was forcibly stopped, and 49 cases of Christians being arrested on false charges.
(Sources: All India Christian Council, Barnabas, Compass Direct News, Evangelical Fellowship of India, Library of Congress – State Anti-conversion Laws in India, Morning Star News, Open Doors, Operation World, Persecution Relief, Release, Wikipedia, World Watch List, World Watch Monitor)
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