UDAIPUR, India (BP) — Persecution of Christians in India increased dramatically the first half of 2016 and is on pace to far exceed cases the previous two years, a new independent report found.
The 134 incidents of violence against Christians in India chronicled Jan. 1-June 30 of this year were “just a fraction of the violence on the ground,” the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission (EFIRLC) noted in its report, Hate and Targeted Violence Against Christians in India.
The incidents noted in six months compared to 147 incidents in all of 2014 and 177 in 2015, the EFIRLC said. Of major cases of violence against Christians across 21 of India’s 29 states, the report places Uttar Pradesh as leading the list with 25, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with 17 and 15 respectively.
Physical violence, arrests on false allegations and stopping church services were frequent crimes, with attacks on churches, vandalizing and threats also recurring. One person was reported to have been murdered because of his faith.
“In Bastar, Chhattisgarh, religious fanatics attacked a church and tried to set a pastor and his pregnant wife on fire after thrashing them at remote Tokapal in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region,” the report states. “The pastor and his wife managed to escape after they were beaten up and doused with petrol. The attackers destroyed the electronic equipment at the church, besides thrashing the pastor’s children and setting ablaze scriptures and furniture. The FIR [First Information Report] stated the assailants were well-armed and even tried to burn the pastor’s house.”
Hindu extremist splinter factions affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, including various local units, were the groups most often behind the violence, said the report that is backed by independent fact-finding surveys.
Though anti-Christian violence is assumed to be more widespread across the north Indian states, Tamil Nadu in the south rose to fourth position on the list with 14 incidents, some extremely brutal.
A pastor from Kambam in Theni District of Tamil Nadu was attacked during a worship service on Jan. 17. Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) activists attacked his head with a heavy, sharp object, leaving him to what they supposed would be his death. Emergency treatment for profuse bleeding saved his life, the report said.
Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were the other southern states making it onto the list with seven, six and two cases respectively.
“Freedom of Religion” acts
In many incidents, Christians were accused of conversion by force or allurement and charged under so-called Freedom of Religion Acts after they were harassed, threatened and thrashed. The acts, popularly known as anti-conversion laws, declare conversion by force, allurement or fraudulent means to be criminal. Radical Hindu groups commonly use them to falsely implicate Christians.
In Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh, for example, Balu Sastya and his wife Bhuri, both blind, were called to pray for a sick person. When they had gathered at the house of the sick person along with 11 others, a mob of more than 50 people with sticks and stones surrounded the house.
The extremists uttered abusive words and threatened to kill Sastya and his companions, but when police arrived, the crowd filed a complaint against him and others, accusing them of attempting to convert gullible villagers by promising them physical healing. Sastya, his wife, and their 3-year-old son had to spend two days and three nights in jail before they were released on bail.
Even in states like Uttar Pradesh, where such laws do not exist, propagation of one’s faith, especially Christianity, is generally misperceived as illegal because of laws in place in other areas.
At least 10 arrests and repeated cases of false allegations hint at the hand-in-glove relationship between non-state actors and local administrators. In many cases, the local administration and police refused to act and openly sided with the assailants, the report said.
Hindu radicals in Digal village of Malkangiri District in Odisha state (formerly Orissa) threatened Christians early this year, warning them to leave the village for worshipping Jesus Christ. As the Christians were on their way to a police station on Jan. 19, the Hindu extremists ambushed and beat them in the presence of local police who refused to help the Christians.
The escalation of anti-Christian violence was consistently related to city and state election seasons, particularly in Uttar Pradesh where elections will be held in early 2017, and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
One of the most infamous cases from Uttar Pradesh state was that of pastor Avdhesh Savita in Orai town, Jalaun District. Members of the Hindu extremist Youth Brigade (Yuvavahini) on Jan. 29 kidnapped Savita under the guise of policemen, beat him brutally, shaved half of his head, eyebrows and mustache, and paraded him on a donkey for about half an hour. The pastor was later charged with forcible conversion.
Findings from Bastar District in Chhattisgarh state, central India, suggest systematic attempts to persecute Christian minorities. Such attempts include hate campaigns and misuse of laws that grant rights of self-governance and preservation of culture to tribal (Adivasi) villages.
Hindu radical groups have succeeded in associating local cultural and customs legislation with Hindu religious practices, denouncing everything non-Hindu as a threat to their culture and identity. The legislation is intended to restrict Christians from practicing and propagating their faith.
Founded in 1951, the national Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) articulates biblical values, trains partnering members, addresses advocacy issues, and advocates for the poor and marginalized, according to its website efionline.org.
To combat Christian persecution, EFI recommends the enactment of comprehensive hate crimes legislation; training police on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices; repealing anti-conversion laws; ensuring every state has an active, non-partisan Commission for Human Rights and a Commission for Minorities, and the prevention and prosecution of all violent acts against religious and tribal minorities and castes.