Source: Release International
In India, attacks against Christians are rising and more states are imposing anti-conversion laws. This comes as growing numbers of the Indian underclass, the Dalits, are turning to Christianity, and as right-wing Hindu nationalism is on the rise.
As yet another state, Karnataka, is poised to impose anti-conversion legislation, there have been challenges in the Supreme Court to the constitutionality of limiting freedom of religion in India. Earlier this month, Hindu nationalists set upon a Christian community in Chhattisgarh state, to drive them out and make the area 'Christian free', according to International Christian Concern (ICC).
The mob of 50 attacked Christians in Metapal village with clubs, on November 6, breaking their bones and leaving nine Christians seriously injured.
And following a similar attack on Christians in Uttar Pradesh in October, the authorities arrested seven Christians on false conversion charges, reports ICC. 100 Hindu nationalists burst into a church meeting, beating the pastor and other Christians. The police turned up soon after and arrested the Christians, later charging them under the anti-conversion law.
Attacks such as the above against Christians in India are rising. The latest report from a coalition of NGOs, including the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, listed more than 300 violent attacks against Christians over a nine-month period. They included 288 accounts of mob violence across 21 states.
Other reports confirm the rising trend. In July, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded 145 incidents of religious persecution against Christians - including three murders - in the first six months of 2021.
The EFI claims extremists demolished three churches and attacked more than 20 places of worship. It says militants carried out 21 violent attacks against Christians and made 43 false accusations of forced conversion.
According to one Release partner, Madhu: "The number of attacks has increased since the second wave of COVID-19 ended. This is a most challenging time for the church in India. We need prayer and the intervention of God."
In a recent attack in Bihar state (September 28), 25 Hindu extremists dragged a 36-year-old pastor from the marketplace, slapped him, punched him and kicked him and demanded: "Stop Christian prayers. Shutdown your church. If we see you conducting prayers, we will not spare you alive," Pastor Raj Masih told Morning Star News.
The pastor said extremists were resorting to violence because growing numbers of Hindus were putting their faith in Christ and attending church services.
In August, three extremists on a motorcycle threw acid over a 14-year-old Christian boy. Nitish Kumar was burned across 65 per cent of his body, and later died.
His 17-year-old brother, Sanjeet, told Morning Star News: "A month before the attack, extremists spread word that they would expel all the people who follow the Christian faith from the village."
"Even after what my brother has gone through,' he told Morning Star News, 'we will not forsake Christ. We will continue to remain faithful until we die."
The family are convinced the attacks were carried out by right-wing nationalists to prevent the Christians holding daily prayer meetings in their home.
The rising persecution is linked to Hindutva, a form of religious and cultural nationalism that binds Hindu identity to nationality. Hindutva (literally Hinduness) shapes the right-wing political ideology of India's ruling BJP and other nationalist groups.
"At its most extreme, the notion behind Hindutva is that to be Indian is to be a Hindu - and nothing else will be tolerated," says Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians in India and around the world.
Another Release International partner in India, 'Himmat' says: 'Nationalism and Hindutva go hand-in-hand. The nationalists see Christianity as a foreign religion and Jesus as a Western god. There has been escalating violence against the Christian community.'
Adds Paul Robinson of Release: "This rising tide of intolerance has increased since the election of the nationalist BJP in 2014. It has resulted in attacks against religious minorities and the passing of anti-conversion laws in many states. These laws are targeted at both Muslims and Christians."
The anti-conversion laws have been widely characterised as an attempt to prevent so-called Love-Jihad. This is the supposed targeting of Hindu women by Muslim men for kidnap, marriage and conversion. But the legislation has also been used as a justification to prevent Christians gathering to pray and to worship - often with violence.
The Association for Protection of Civil Rights and others claim in their latest report that the vast majority of attacks are targeted against Christians from the Dalit and tribal communities.
The Dalits, the so-called untouchables outside the caste system, are turning to Christianity in large numbers.
There are upwards of 200 million Dalits in India. The name means literally 'broken' or 'scattered'. These are the lowest of the low in Indian society, the underclass who perform tasks such as road sweeping and toilet cleaning.
Release International partner, 'Neeraj' - a Dalit - was brought up to believe he was less than human. "I constantly used to hear my mother saying we were untouchables - subhuman was the word she used - that we were not human beings.
"Hinduism says there are 330 million gods, but none of these died for a sinner like me. It was only Jesus. It is he who gives me hope. I was told I was created to be less than an animal, but it is Jesus who says, 'No, I created you in my image.' That's why I love Jesus.
"Christianity gives value to human beings. There is a dignity in the gospel, and that's what every Dalit longs to hear. He wants to be treated as a human being."
A growing number of states are now passing anti-conversion laws. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), Uttar Pradesh is the eighth to do so, and Karnataka is poised to follow suit.
International Christian Concern say the authorities in Uttar Pradesh have arrested at least 71 pastors and other Christians under their anti-conversion law, which came into force on February 23, 2021.
As in other states, the law makes so-called forced religious conversion a criminal matter. Christians can be accused of allurement or coercion - effectively of bribing people to change their religion or threatening them if they don't.
"These anti-conversion laws are interpreted so widely, that any offer of relief aid or support, or mention of judgement, heaven or hell, could be taken to be bribery or inducement," says Paul Robinson of Release International. "In effect, the laws ban any activity to share the Christian faith with others. This is how they're being interpreted by Hindu extremists.
"We see time and again the growing culture of hostility towards Christians in India leading to attacks. And these attacks spur on the movement to impose anti-conversion laws to restore order. It is a vicious spiral."
Karnataka looks set to become the fourth state in India to pass an anti-conversion law in the space of a year.
According to Release International's sister organisation, the Voice of the Martyrs Canada: 'Under BJP control, Karnataka recently ordered that an investigation be conducted on all churches, ministers and missionaries, in preparation for proposals to enact anti-conversion laws.'
Around 6,000 Christians gathered in Karnataka in the final week of October to protest against the pending legislation and growing violence against the faith community.
Release International and other campaigners believe such laws limit religious freedom and are unconstitutional. A constitutional challenge has been launched in Uttar Pradesh to that state's anti-conversion law, which also outlaws religious conversion by marriage.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) say the country's Supreme Court has agreed to examine the constitutional validity of these laws in both Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Uttarakhand.
But the Supreme Court has ruled those laws must first be challenged in the states' respective high courts. A hearing at Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh was delayed again at the end of October.
Article 25 of the Constitution declares: 'all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.'
This is in effect a national guarantee that the right to choose one's faith and to share that faith with others will be protected.
"Today that right is under threat," says Paul Robinson of Release International. "Freedom of religion and belief is a cornerstone of all freedoms. These core freedoms are guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Any attempt to remove that right is a violation of the very Constitution that safeguards the world's largest democracy."
According to the 2021 Indian census there are around 960 million Hindus in India, which has a population of 1.3 billion. Estimates vary as to the number of Christians. The official figure is 29 million, but some observers put the number at almost 65 million, roughly 5 per cent of the population.
Release International is working to train pastors in India and to provide financial and medical help when they come under attack.
Release is active in more than 25 countries around the world, working through partners to prayerfully, pastorally and practically support: the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families, Christians suffering oppression and violence, and Christians who are forced to flee.