The Republic of India, the world’s largest democracy, comprises 29 states and seven 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 third-largest Muslim country 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. There has been an upsurge in persecution of non-Hindus since the 2014 landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – the Evangelical Fellowship of India recorded 351 attacks on Christians in 2017, more than double the 141 attacks recorded in 2014. Open Doors’ World Watch List 2019 reported that in 2018, at least 12,500 Christians and one hundred churches were attacked in India and ten Christians were killed.
Religious intolerance has grown with the rise of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). Its followers use the slogans “One Nation, One Religion, One Culture” and “India is Hindu only” and consider Christians and Muslims to be followers of foreign religions.
Hindutva violence against Christians occurs mainly in rural areas and includes church burning, property destruction and violent attacks that leave Christians seriously injured, hospitalised or dead. Typically, intruders burst into church services, beat the Christians and then have them arrested on false charges of forcibly converting Hindus. The attackers generally act with impunity and police rarely arrest them.
In some instances, Christians have been coerced by government agencies into accepting a compromise with their attackers, even submitting to demands such as leaving the locality, agreeing not to conduct worship services in their homes or paying fines for practicing their faith.
“Anti-conversion laws” have led to increased violence against Christians in the seven states where they are in force. Officially called “Freedom of Religion” laws, they are intended to stop Hindus converting to other religions. The laws forbid conversion by “force, fraud or allurement” and state that those who wish to convert must first gain official permission and that religious leaders must report conversions or risk imprisonment. Extremists use the laws as a licence to attack Christians, claiming they are forcing Hindus to convert, and Christians fear that, under Hindutva pressure, the laws will be enacted at national level.
The laws have been passed in ten states, although in three states they are not active. They have been passed in Arunachal Pradesh (although its government has not framed the rules needed to implement the laws), Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh (parts were repealed after a court challenge brought by the Evangelical Fellowship of India), Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan (passed but never signed by the state’s governor), Tamil Nadu (passed in 2002 and repealed in 2004) and Uttarakhand.
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.
Attacks on Christians 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 say that figure is 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 says that non-Hindu communities are being targeted “with impunity”. It lists 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.
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 “convert or die”, sometimes at gunpoint, and the militants bombed three refugee camps. Most cases relating to the violence were dismissed or resulted in acquittals. Eventually, in November 2012, twelve people were sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for their involvement, while ten others were acquitted. Christians called to give evidence in court were intimidated, and many witnesses were afraid to testify.
Church in Chains in Action
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. 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.
In November 2017, David Turner, Director of Church in Chains, wrote a letter to the Indian Ambassador to Ireland to express deep concern at ongoing violent attacks by Hindu extremists on Indian Christians, and in particular a recent incident in which police detained seven children for a week and two adults for ten days after Hindu extremists attacked them on their way to a Bible conference. He requested a meeting to discuss this incident and other attacks on Christians in India.
Church in Chains supports the campaign of justice for Christian Dalits – the speaker at our 2014 conference, Dr Joseph D’Souza, is a leader of the Dalit Freedom Network as well as being spokesman for the All India Christian Council and international vice-president of Operation Mobilisation.
Church in Chains sends aid to Christian victims of militant attacks and has sponsored the operation of a safe-house in Karnataka for pastors and other victims of violent attacks.
(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)
The ongoing persecution of Christians in India continues to be documented by Church in Chains partner, Persecution Relief, which reported three incidents that occurred on Sunday 3 February.
Seventeen members of the Oireachtas have signed a petition to the Indian Ambassador requesting the Indian government to act to protect Christians who continue to face ongoing attacks from Hindu extremists.
At least 18 incidents against Christians in India were reported over Christmas: seven members of New Life Church in Maharashtra state had to spend Christmas in intensive care following a Hindu attack.
In the early hours of 16 November, extremists set fire to a church building in Ahladpur village and burned it down.
Shibu Thomas asked delegates at Church in Chains’ annual conference to pray for the church in India, which he said is going through an unprecedented time of persecution.