Hindu extremists carried out a brutal attack on Christians at a Pentecostal church service in Tamil Nadu state, southern India, on Sunday 11 March. They stripped and repeatedly kicked the pastor’s wife in the face, leaving her unconscious, and also attacked the pastor, vandalised the premises and took Bibles and personal items which they burned in the middle of the road.
The attackers, members of Tamil Nadu-based extremist group Hindu Munnani, stormed the Pentecostal church in Sikandar Chavadi, Madurai District, during its Sunday morning service, before later that day attacking four other Pentecostal churches in Madurai. The extremists’ leader, Thangam Venkatesh (district secretary of the Hindu Munnani), was accompanied by an armed policeman as his personal security officer.
The attackers first tried to seize the Bible from the pastor’s wife, Persis Jacob (38), but she clasped it close to her heart. “I will die, but I can’t do without the Bible,” she said.
They wrestled the Bible from her, pushed and slapped her and stripped her of her sari. When she pleaded with them to let go, the security officer told her to prostrate herself at Venkatesh’s feet and beg him to forgive her. One of the attackers told her, “If you and your husband convert back to Hinduism right here, we will spare you alive. If not, you will be brutally killed.”
She tried to prevent them applying vermillion to her forehead, a sign of conversion to Hinduism, but they struck her in the face with the key to the church building, leaving a scar.
Pastor Ravi Jacob (41) told Morning Star News in tears: “She was kicked in the face with shoes. I tried hard but couldn’t protect her. She fell unconscious. She was lying there unconscious without her sari.”
Church members managed to lift the unconscious woman into their arms, while an extremist told Pastor Jacob, “This attack should stand as an example to all the pastors in Tamil Nadu. It should teach them a lesson so hard that there will not be any church service, and no worship of Jesus on this Tamil land.”
The extremists dragged the pastor out and punched him repeatedly, injuring him in the face and leaving his mouth bloodied. As he struggled for breath, they grabbed Bibles, his mobile phone, watch and a microphone and set them on fire.
Pastor Jacob said Venkatesh then threatened to kill him: “He asked me how I would prefer to die, and that he had only two options to offer me, One, he said, he would hang me in public. And, the other that he would burn me alive.”
A mob of about fifty extremists chased Pastor Jacob more than a kilometre from Sikandar Chavadi. He told Morning Star News, “They issued threats that they will strip me and chase me naked – I ran as fast as I could. They mocked me, and some were photographing. They said I should be put to shame by videotaping me nude and chasing me on the main road, and by circulating it widely to the public, saying that they can stop ‘conversions,’ and that it will be an end to Christianity.”
The Jacobs’ daughters, aged 14 and 10, who were present in church during the attack, were left traumatised. “They are not going to school,” said Persis. “They have never seen anything like this attack before.”
Speaking of her own recovery, however, she said: “When I was undergoing treatment in the hospital, I heard a voice that assured me, ‘No person shall lay a hand on you.’ It comforted me greatly.”
Attacks on other churches
The Hindu extremists later went to four other Pentecostal churches in Madurai District and threatened to target the Christians’ homes if they did not close the churches within a week.
Two hours after the first incident in Sikandar Chavadi, the extremists arrived at Bethesda Worship Centre in Koodal Pudur, where they stripped and sexually assaulted two women, Mariyammal (40) and Annal (51), and slapped and punched a third, Bava Dhaarani (23). The attackers threatened Pastor Jerome Jagatheesan, calling him obscene names and telling him he would be killed in five days. They said, “If you want to serve Jesus Christ, go to Bethlehem or the Vatican. Worship him there. Why do you want to make India impure?”
The image is a still from a video of Thangam Venkatesh (left) shouting abuse at Pastor Jagatheesan.
Describing the attack, Pastor Jagatheesan said, “They verbally assaulted us with obscene words and asked us to stop our activities. They stripped two female members of the church, ages 51 and 40, and a young 23-year-old woman was punched in her chest. Her mobile was thrown away.”
On the evening of the attacks, after attending to medical emergencies, Pastor Jacob went to Alanganallur police station with Mariyammal from Bethesda Worship Centre. They both tried to file First Information Reports (FIRs) against ten Hindu Munnani members, but the police refused to register the case – they only gave the pastor a Community Service Register receipt and told him to leave. The receipt described the attackers as “unknown culprits” and did not name any Hindu Munnani members.
When Mariyammal tried to lodge her complaint she was told police could “only take one complaint per church” and the church pastor had already made a complaint.
In the days that followed, Christian advocacy groups, NGOs and hundreds of Christian protesters called on the police to register FIRs, and on 14 March they registered three FIRs on complaints by Pastor Jagatheesan and others against “50 known persons”. The FIRs did not disclose any names.
On 20 March, local news outlets reported that Venkatesh and two other extremists had been arrested, but details were not revealed.
A source who requested anonymity said, “The Hindu extremists sent threats directly to the church leaders that if anyone complains to the police, the consequences will be unbearable. He [Venkatesh] is aiming for a ticket from the party in the upcoming elections. He is more likely to be BJP’s [Bharatiya Janata Party’s] candidate.”
A Facebook account in Venkatesh’s name had posted updates on attacks on Christians and included anti-Christian hate speech. Other members of Hindu Munnani also posted videos of the Madurai attacks on Facebook.
(Asia News/The Hindu/International Christian Concern/Morning Star News/World Watch Monitor)