“These are tough days, but God is good.” This is how one Indian church leader summed up the increasing restrictions and growing violence facing Christians in India, where at the same time the Church continues to grow.
Last year saw at least seven Christian martyrdoms across India, from May to July, a country where anti-Christian violence has rarely resulted in deaths before. This followed a peak of other, less deadly, anti-Christian violence in March, which had coincided with a nationwide lockdown at the beginning of the Covid crisis.
Indian martyrs of 2020
The first Indian Christian martyr of 2020 was a woman raped and murdered in Chhattisgarh State in May, having previously been publicly threatened four times to renounce her Christian faith.
In June, a Christian father and son, who belonged to the lowly Nadar caste, died after being tortured while in police custody in Tamil Nadu State. In the same month, a 14-year-old boy – a convert who was very active in sharing his new faith – was tortured and killed in Odisha State, and a Christian man was stabbed to death by extremists in Jharkhand State.
In July, a Christian woman living nearby died as she tried to protect her daughter from sexual assault; the mother had been harassed by extremists since her conversion six years earlier. Also in July, a pastor was shot dead in Maharashtra State by Maoist Naxalites, who were angered that he had become a Christian, left the extremist group and started a church.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) is aware of 327 instances of discrimination and targeted violence against Christians in India in 2020, although the actual figures are likely to be far higher. Uttar Pradesh State was worst for targeted attacks on Christians, with 95 incidents, many of which were violent, followed by Chhattisgarh with 55, and Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh with 28 and 25 respectively.
Christians vulnerable to false accusation under anti-conversion laws
Not only did anti-Christian violence become more deadly in 2020, but new laws were also introduced that brought new restrictions. Uttar Pradesh State passed an anti-conversion law in November 2020, which brings to a total of nine1 the number of states with this type of legislation in force. Typically, these anti-conversion laws ban the use of “force, fraud or allurement” in conversion. They are often misused to falsely accuse Christians who are evangelising in legal and proper ways. Christians and other religious minorities become vulnerable to being “targeted by just about anyone, especially vigilante groups many of whom are complicit in the mob violence,” according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
According to an Indian Christian leader, accusations are often “created to threaten and stop regular worship activity by intimidation”. Commenting on the troubling trend, he continued, “Christian prayer meetings that have gone on for many years without much disturbance are being targeted … There is a pattern here and it must be exposed.” Indeed, soon after the law was passed in Uttar Pradesh, police in the state’s Shahjahanpur district were instructed to keep a watch on Christian prayer meetings to see if there are any unlawful efforts to convert people to Christianity at such gatherings.
It has been suggested that local political leaders can advance their careers by accusing Christians of breaching anti-conversion laws because this helps their accuser “to get into the limelight” and gain the approval of more senior regional and national politicians.
Close monitoring of Christian finances and operations
In September 2020, the Indian government amended the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010, making it a requirement that financial support from overseas be channelled through one State Bank of India branch, in New Delhi, which is closely monitored by the Ministry of Home Affairs. While this in itself is not a problem for honest organisations, it puts in place a mechanism that could later be used to limit funding received by Indian Christian organisations from foreign Christian agencies. The act also now requires organisations to renew FCRA approval by October 2021, and without this approval they will be unable to receive donations from overseas.
Increasingly onerous paperwork is also being required by the Indian authorities from charities who receive funding from overseas. While not directed specifically against Christians, it is becoming very hard for small ministries to meet all the requirements, and the least slip can be a potential pretext for the authorities to hamper their work or even close the organisation down.
Indian government’s legislation restricts support for Christians
The Juvenile and Justice Act (2015), which applies to children under 18, has been used to force the closure of many Christian hostels which serve Dalit and other impoverished Christians. The hostels provide residential accommodation for older children from rural areas, who have to travel long distances to get to schools or colleges for more advanced study than is available in their villages. The reported closure of almost 90% of Christian hostels in Kandhamal, Odisha State, has meant that many rural children now lack access to education beyond middle school.
The authorities closely monitor the Christian hostels, looking for any infringements of the law, no matter how small or accidental. In some instances, where no other pretext can be found, authorities have reportedly created or manufactured complaints of sexual harassment against Christian leaders. The end result is the closure of the hostel.
Dalit Christians doubly persecuted
Dalits, formerly termed “untouchables”, are at the lowest level of the Hindu caste system and were a traditionally despised group. They are among the poorest in society and extremely vulnerable to discrimination and attack. For many decades there have been quotas to ensure that Dalits from religions that originated in India can access education and employment, but these do not apply to Christian or Muslim Dalits.
Hindu radical groups monitor and attack Christian activities
Extreme Hindu nationalism has been growing under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was elected to the national government in 2014 and re-elected in 2019. The BJP promotes Hindutva (meaning Hindu-ness), an extreme Hindu ideology that first emerged in the 1920s, which has the aim of creating a religiously pure nation. Hindutva has been influential in Indian politics since the 1980s. Hinduism is strongly connected with Indian identity, but Christianity is perceived as foreign and dangerous, and a threat to the public order.
Mob violence by Hindu radicals is common in some parts of India. Typically the attacks are launched when Christians have gathered for prayer and worship, church property is damaged and Christians are injured, often the police arrest the Christian victims.
Forced conversions to Hinduism
So-called “re-conversion” to Hinduism is tacitly approved by the BJP government, although many of the Christians targeted have never been Hindus, nor their families for many generations. Ghar Wapsi, or “returning home”, is the subject of numerous campaigns in which Christians are pressured to convert to Hinduism.
“The narrative of India as a Hindu nation is now rarely contested in the media and by most Indians,” explained an Indian Christian leader. “That is the challenge Indian Christians face, as all have an Indian ancestry, whereas many Muslims were immigrants,” he added.
In October 2020, about 40 Indian Christians were arrested by police when an angry mob of 1,500 locals, led by extremists, converged on their village to try to pressure the believers into renouncing their faith in Christ.
“Unwritten rules of New India” generate climate of fear for Christians
Members of the BJP, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist group, continue to monitor, report and disrupt Christian activity under the banner of “Mission Kaali”. (Kaali is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction.) Local units of Hindu radicals at the grassroots level watch the funding and activities of the Christians and look for ways to hinder them, for example, preventing pastors and evangelists from entering certain villages or causing the legal registration of a ministry to be cancelled on some pretext. Such intimidation and harassment has been reported in Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
An Indian Christian leader has described this as “the unwritten rules of New India”, the aim of the radicals being “to create an atmosphere of fear among the Christian community and other religious minorities”.
Despite the increasing persecution and hardship Indian Christians face, the new difficulties and challenges facing them in addition to the old ones, they continue to be active in outreach and evangelism, and the Church in India is continuing to grow.
1 The nine states of India with active anti-conversion laws in force are: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.