AHMEDABAD, India (BP)–“Is he the man we are talking about?”
Joseph Pitts shot the query and sat crammed with three fellow congressmen in a downtown hotel room in India’s northwestern state of Gujarat.
Arun Christi, a short, dark and shy pastor who leads Good Shepherd Community Church, wobbled on the sofa to acknowledge. He was brought there by some of the Christian leaders in India.
“This is the man Hindu extremist groups have threatened to kill if he doesn’t stop preaching,” said John Dayal, secretary general of All India Christian Council who was among the group in the room.
Pitts, R-Pa., a member of the House International Relations Committee, and the other congressmen expressed shock over the degree of overt persecution against Christians occurring across India and similar attacks against Muslims.
With Pitts in the delegation were Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a member of North Phoenix Baptist Church, Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.
“We are really touched by the suffering of the Christian and Muslim minorities at the hands of Hindu extremists here,” Pitts said during the delegation’s weeklong tour in India at the invitation of All India Christian Council and the international religious liberty organization Jubilee Campaign.
After hearing from people representing various communities about the fears of minority Christians and Muslims in India, Pitts promised they would bring the issue to the attention of the Bush administration in the formulation of U.S. policy toward India.
According to tallies from police records, the number of attacks on Christians rose from seven in 1996 to 380 in 2003. Unofficial estimates put the figure at 600 for 2003. At least 4,000 cases are pending in India’s courts involving attacks against Christians.
Direct threats and even murders, mob violence, ransacking of churches and burning of Bibles have been used to intimidate Christian outreach in India. Extremist violence has been particularly heavy in the Indian states of Gujarat, Orissa, Karnataka and Chattisgarh.
Pitts said the congressional delegation’s report will address “anti-conversion laws, status of Dalit Christians [or ‘untouchables’] and the anti-minority violence in India.”
“We learned about the Dalits, 250 million people [Christians and Muslims] who are suffering in almost indescribable, inhumane ways. This is a great human rights tragedy. We have the obligation to bring this to the attention of the national leaders in United States,” Pitts said.
“Most rioters and killers of minority Christians and Muslims were still at large,” the congressman added.
The delegation visited a site in Gujarat where Hindu extremists in 2002 burned to death 42 Muslims, including a member of Parliament, Ehsan Jaffrey.
Chabot from Ohio, who had visited strife-torn Rwanda as part of another delegation, said the massacre in Gujarat was probably more gruesome than in the African nation. “Though the numbers vary hugely, the degree of violence … is highly disturbing,” he said.
The delegation also visited a rehabilitation project and a resettlement area for riot victims.
In India, Hindu extremist groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal have a long history of involvement in attacks on Christian missions. Untouchables and others targeted for having converted to Christianity often are coerced or threatened to re-embrace Hindu religion while the police watch.
Samson Christian, general secretary of the All India Christian Council, told the delegation, “On last Sunday in Pareva village about 65 miles from here, loudspeakers were used by extremists who propagated hatred against Christians. Authorities didn’t move a finger.”
Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are the most recent Indian states to enact stringent laws that selectively cripple the freedom of faith of Christians.
According to the Jubilee Campaign website, five states have enacted anti-conversion laws that “intimidate low-caste Hindus from converting to another religion,” and “a national anti-conversion law is currently on the table.”
“These laws require potential converts to seek the permission of a government official who is then allowed to gather personal data including employment and family information as well as information on the organization conducting the conversion and the location,” the Jubilee Campaign recounted.
“Violations are punishable by hefty fines and imprisonment. In some cases, applicants are required to have undergone secondary education. For a nation with 350 million illiterate and 260 million under the poverty line, critics argue that the new rule denies the right to religious faith guaranteed by India’s constitution and insidiously implies that Dalits are incapable of making a personal faith decision. They further speculate that the rule is specifically aimed at Christian organizations working among the poor and the low-caste Hindus.
“Unfortunately, Indian society still recognizes the caste system in varying degrees,” the Jubilee Campaign continued. “Christian organizations that minister to the Dalits by providing an English-medium education and societal empowerment can be seen as a threat to the status quo. This perception, along with growing Hindu religious nationalism, has led to increasingly violent attacks against Christian workers, churches and organizations. In contrast, attacks against the Muslim community are generally more politically motivated as Muslims constitute 12 percent of the population.”
Franks told the Jubilee Campaign, “We appreciated meeting with government leaders, and their willingness to discuss religious freedom openly and frankly, and I look forward to continued dialogue on this and other topics of mutual interest to our nations.”
Franks also stated, “With the embrace of new market reforms and a population of 1.05 billion, half of whom are under 25 years old, India has the technological and human resource potential of becoming a major world leader in the years ahead.”
Art Toalston contributed to this article. Art Toalston contributed to this article. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FINDING OUT.