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Wave of attacks mounting against Christians in India

NEW DELHI, India (BP)–Another day, another bombing.

That’s the impression being created, at least, by a mounting wave of attacks on Christians and churches in India.

Blasts from time bombs planted in churches have injured Christians in at least three states. Several Catholic priests have been murdered. Another was defended from a mob by his courageous landlord, a Hindu woman who fended off the attackers with boiling oil.

Indian church leaders charge that many of the attacks are a part of a campaign by Hindu extremists bent on intimidating Indian Christians and driving missionaries out of India. Some government officials and Hindu groups counter that most cases are local quarrels exaggerated by Christians to foment hysteria — or are plots instigated by Pakistani Muslim agents to hurt India’s international image.

But few deny the increasing frequency of anti-Christian incidents.

The trend commanded renewed world attention early last year when Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burned to death in their vehicle by militant Hindus in Orissa state. Millions of average Hindus reacted with shock and expressed sympathy for the family.

Missionary Gladys Staines has expressed public forgiveness toward those who murdered her husband and sons, and she intends to stay in India. But captured suspect Dara Singh, the alleged leader of the deadly attack, has become a hero to some Hindu extremist groups.

Reported anti-Christian attacks have numbered in the dozens since the beginning of 2000, continuing a frightening growth pattern of recent years. On a single day (July 13), three front-page headlines in The Hindu, one of India’s leading newspapers, dealt with aspects of the crisis:

— “President’s concern over cult of violence” — Indian President K.R. Narayanan called on state governors to act as moral leaders to defend India’s heritage of tolerance against an “emerging cult of violence” against Christians and other minorities.

— “Attack on nun in Gujarat” — After Catholic missionaries refused to stop relief food distribution, a Hindu mob reportedly assaulted a nun and looted a warehouse where the missionaries were storing wheat intended for drought-affected villagers in Gujarat state — site of numerous attacks on Christians. Police later arrested nine people and recovered much of the wheat.

— “‘Brain behind’ church blasts held” — Police in Bangalore arrested a Muslim activist, S.M. Ibrahim, allegedly “the brain” behind recent bombings of churches in Karnataka, Goa and Andhra Pradesh states. Bangalore’s police chief said the timing devices, explosives and detonators used in the bombings — and a van blast that killed two of Ibrahim’s alleged accomplices July 9 — were similar. A computer disk found at Ibrahim’s home contained a pamphlet reading: “Warning: Christian missionaries, stop conversions or quit India.”

Police in Andhra Pradesh arrested four more members of several shadowy Muslim groups July 17. The suspects reportedly confessed to being involved in church bombings.

Bombing targets included the Gewett Memorial Baptist Church in Ongole, Andhra Pradesh, where three people were injured by a blast after a morning worship service. That attack and three others occurred June 9 — the very day Southern Baptists and other world Christians were participating in a day of prayer and fasting for the Hindus of India. But they marked the sixth in a series of recent attacks on churches in Andhra Pradesh alone, according to local media dispatches.

Regardless of who’s responsible for the church bombings, Christian leaders insist radical Hindu groups are behind many of the 100-plus attacks on Christians reported since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India in 1998. The BJP government’s consistent downplaying or denial of organized Hindu involvement, they charge, only encourages more attacks. International human rights groups express similar concerns, noting the government’s ties to radical Hindu groups.

Yet another church bombing in early July in Karnataka drew 100,000 Christians to a July 9 rally to pray and call for action. “We appeal to the government to bring under control the organizations that openly challenge our constitutional rights, spread half-truths and untruths — and encourage criminals,” said church leader Marampudi Joji at the rally.

Those organizations, according to Christians, include the Sangh Parivar (“united family”), a network of Hindu groups calling for the purification of India from non-Hindu influences — including Christianity.

Before his recent death in a car accident abroad, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New Delhi declared Christians were facing their worst crisis since India gained independence in 1947. “There is a definite strategy … on a national basis,” Archbishop Alan de Lastic said. “I think these forces want to intimidate the Christians.”

Modern India’s “founding fathers” — Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru — envisioned a pluralistic state, tolerant of all traditions. Two generations later, polls say a majority of Indians still favor that ideal, but radical forces preach “India for the Hindus,” a land reserved for “one nation, one people, one culture.” That’s a volatile message in a nation that speaks countless dialects and is home to more than 100 million Muslims, 20 million Christians and throngs of Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and tribals.

Muslims remain by far the biggest and most despised “enemy” for Hindu extremists. But Christians, at about 2 percent of the population, present an easier target. And their evangelistic success — particularly among responsive low-caste Hindus, Dalits (“untouchables”) and tribal peoples — infuriates the radicals, who contend Christians bribe poor Hindus to convert. Some Hindu groups carry out regular campaigns to “reconvert” new Christians by force.

Christian leaders say the radicals’ real agenda is an old one: to defend the economic status quo of the Hindu caste system, which still relegates lower castes (the great majority of Indian Hindus) to servant status.

“The church in India was born in persecution, has grown in persecution and continues to suffer for the sake of the gospel,” says one Indian evangelical. “The reason behind the persecution is that the gospel of Christ came on the one hand as a message of liberation to the poor and oppressed, and on the other hand as a threat to the Brahmins and caste Hindus.”

Whatever the reason for the attacks, added another Christian worker, “even the founder of the nation, Nehru, warned the Indian people not to persecute Christians unless they wanted to spread Christianity. We need to pray that where there is persecution it will create a spiritual hunger for the truth.”

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