Bearing the cross: Recent attacks against Christians worrisome

  • Sudipto Mondal, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 15, 2015 15:44 IST

It is public knowledge that Muslims have been the prime targets of anti-minority violence in India since independence. As a result, violence against Christians is often reduced to a footnote in the larger narrative on communal violence in the country. Between 1964 and 1996, thousands of Muslims were killed in communal riots across the country. In the same period though, Christian organisations recorded only 39 communal attacks against the community.

"Organised attacks on Christians in India only started to increase from 1996. Since then, we have recorded between 100 and 200 attacks every year. But only sensational cases such as the murder of [Australian missionary] Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999, the Kandhamal riots in 2007-2008, and the Mangalore church attacks of 2008 have registered in the public memory," says Vijayesh Lal, Director of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

The first major instance of mass violence against Christians broke out in the southeastern districts of Gujarat in 1998, "the same year that the BJP came to power in that state," notes a 1999 report of Human Rights Watch. The report titled 'Politics by other means: Attacks against Christians in India' noted that between December 25, 1998, and January 3, 1999, more than 20 churches were burned or destroyed and scores of tribal Christians were assaulted, robbed and targeted by angry mobs of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists who invaded their houses in the Dang and neighbouring districts of Gujarat. The report also said: "Although the highest number of incidents took place in Gujarat, attacks have also been reported in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Manipur, West Bengal, and New Delhi."

Statistics compiled by the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) and EFI (see graphic) show that states such as Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continue to top the list. "The first half of 2014, when the Lok Sabha campaign was in full swing, saw the highest number of attacks," says Lal, alleging that the violence was used to polarise the electorate. Joseph Dias - the author of the CSF report, which found that 7,000 Christians faced threats across the country in 2014 - also points to the attacks on churches ahead of the Delhi elections.

Martyrs Of Faith

Both Dias and Lal say that most Christians do not report if they are attacked. "Even the best reports account for only a fifth of the attacks," says author and Kerala-based journalist, Anto Akkara, who has been following anti-Christian violence since the Kandhamal riots in 2008.

Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who is in the process of finalising her own report on the issue, says that fear is the main reason why such cases are not reported. "Most of those attacked are from lower castes. Their access to the state machinery is severely curtailed. They tend to avoid reporting attacks to avoid further persecution."

What is interesting is that the silence also stems from a narrow interpretation of the gospel. Punning on a biblical reference, Akkara calls it "the silence of the lambs" and says that many persecuted Christians either "forgive their attackers" or "embrace violence" against them as a reward and a means to emulate Jesus Christ. The recurring theme in various Christian texts - the Old and New Testament as well as subsequent derivations - is that Christ warned his followers that they will be persecuted if they follow in his path. "As a result, many extremely orthodox Christians, across denominations, actually expect to be persecuted. Let them forgive their attackers if they want but they should at least allow us to document the cases," says Lal.

"Every drop of my blood that they spill will become a seed for the spread of my faith," the pastor of an Bengaluru-based evangelical mission tells HT, on condition of anonymity. He says he has been attacked several times since 2012 in various parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. "You will be surprised by how widespread such beliefs are," says a Bengaluru-based theologian requesting anonymity.

Dias, who finds this silence "frustrating", says that people such as Gladys Staines (Graham Staines' wife, who forgave her husband and children's killers) have now become "role models". Lal also recalls the example of Kalia, a man from Jhabua in MP, who refused to file a complaint even after his children were killed and his house burnt in 2006 by Hindu extremists opposed to his conversion to Christianity.

There are hundreds of Christian denominations in India and many of them are involved in bitter turf wars. This often comes in the way of documentation. The secretive Christian group, Jehova's Witness (JW), for instance, has documented attacks against their members but refuses to share it publicly. The group's evangelical pastors face a grave risk because one of the preferred methods for the spread of their faith is knocking on the doors of strangers.

When contacted, Tobias Dias, the group's spokesman said that they would not like to be clubbed along with other Christians. Akkara says, "Ironically, the religious extremists attacking Christians do not know or care for the many divisions that exist within the community."

Madhya Pradesh: Despite FIR, no one was arrested

Incidents of assaults on Christians have increased in recent times in Madhya Pradesh. Right wing activists accuse the community of performing religious conversions, while Christians blame saffron activists of misusing government machinery and harassing them. The Sarv Isai Mahasabha co-ordinator Jerry Paul said he can't understand why the government has taken no action against the saffron activists accused of creating ruckus in churches and the Christian homes. "Instead, cases against peace-loving Christians including women and children have been lodged," said Paul.

Paul said that right wing activists vandalised and set a church on fire in Mandla district. An FIR was lodged but several months later, no arrests have been made.

Christians in Bhopal participating in a mass prayer to protest the attack on churches and Christians in Delhi, in February. (Photo: Mujeeb Faruqui/HT)

In September, in Khargone district, 10 people including two women were sent to jail on allegations of "religious conversion". Christian organisations accuse the police of doing it "under pressure" from VHP activists.

On December 4, a Christian family was sent to jail when they were distributing clothes and toys to the poor in Bhopal. Members of Bajrang Dal assaulted the family, beat them brutally and called the police. Finally, they were sent to jail, said Paul.

Several other cases have been reported from Mandla, Jhabua, Alirajpur and other areas where Christian families and churches have been targeted, said Father Anand Muttungal, of Isai Mahasangh. "Of late, such incidents have been on the rise in Bhopal as well," said Muttungal. The state has taken a soft approach towards right wing activists, accused Muttungal. Devendra Rawat of VHP said that the Christians "lure poor tribals with food, gifts and cash". Christian organisations refute such allegations and say that they have always done "selfless service" in the fields of education and health.

Shahroz Afridi

Chhattisgarh : All attacks against us are orchestrated

On the night of February 13, a church at Akaltara in Chhattisgarh's Janjgir-Champa district was vandalised and the "miscreants" set a few objects inside the church on fire. An FIR was lodged but the police suspected the role of some "insane" persons, with a motive of theft. "Every attack on Christians and their institutions in the state appears to be an orchestrated one. What will a thief gain from a church?" says Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF).

According to Pannalal, around 30 incidents of threats and violence against Christians in Chhattisgarh have taken place in 2014. "We don't trust the police now. Initially, the administration helped, but not anymore. The only ray of hope remains the judiciary", he says. The community has filed two writ petitions in the High Court, which has served notices to the state government, Pannalal adds.

Citing acts of aggression against the community since 2005, state political observers such as Parivesh Mishra say that such incidents have witnessed an upsurge in the recent years. "The atrocities are not restricted to tribal belts but have been reported across Chhattisgarh. We do also believe that a majority of Hindus subscribe to the philosophy of our Constitution," the CCF claims. The Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Act provides for checking forceful or illegal conversions in the state, and a bill to amend this Act and make it more stringent, passed by the state assembly, has been sent by the governor's office to the Centre for consultation, a few months back.

"Violence and atrocities against religious minorities must be prevented," says Akhilesh Edgar, national manager at the human rights body, Alliance Defending Freedom, India. However, in the district of Bastar, the VHP accused the Christian community of attempting to stir up communal sentiments. Incidents of religious re-conversion of Christians to Hinduism or "ghar wapasi" in Chhattisgarh have been reported mostly from tribal belts. A few months back, the Bastar Lok Sabha MP, Dinesh Kashyap, accomplished this "home coming" by washing the feet of local tribals. The Chhattisgarh unit of the right-wing Dharam Jagran Manch also chalked out an action plan for "re-converting" all Christians to Hindus in the state by 2021.

The People's Union for Civil Liberties had written to the Minority Commission seeking independent probe into the attacks on Christians in Bastar citing the situation as "serious". The Chhattisgarh government has re-iterated: "complete freedom of faith will always be ensured". The additional chief secretary NK Aswal told HT that the state keeps monitoring and seeks every detail on the reported incidents. "There are no general complaints on anti-minority campaigns. Any report on tussle between the reported fundamentalist and minority communities, even if sporadic, is inquired, verified and prompt actions are taken," Aswal insists.

Ejaz Kaiser

Karnataka: Communal attacks continue

Karnataka emerged on the radar for communal violence in September 2008 when dozens of churches were attacked, particularly in the coastal districts, by activists of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks. And while Karnataka has once again emerged on top of the list of states where Christians have been persecuted in 2014, the number of attacks have dipped. South Karnataka convenor of the Bajrang Dal, Sharan Pumpwell says, "The attacks have reduced because all their conversion activities are being carried out secretly now. There are no mass conversion drives now." Pumpwell says that activists of his outfit continue to keep their eyes peeled for instances of conversion. "Just last month we stopped a prayer meeting in Mangalore where Christians were trying to convert a group from Chikmangalur. We rescued a family of 10 and took them to the police who were very cooperative."

Another interesting explanation is offered by Mahendra Kumar, the former head of the Bajrang Dal, who was sacked from his post and jailed after he claimed responsibility for the 2008 attacks on behalf of the Sangh Parivar at a press conference in Mangalore. "There are still boys who are willing to sacrifice their lives for Hindutva. But they are hesitant after they saw how the BJP and Sangh Parivar treated me," Kumar says. "The attacks against Christians might have reduced, but other minorities continue to be targetted," says Suresh Bhat, spokesman of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum. Statistics compiled by him show that little has changed since the "secular" Congress replaced the "communal" BJP - in Mangalore there were 124 attacks on minorities in the last nine months of the BJP rule and the first nine months of the Congress government saw 100 such attacks. While Home Minister K J George contests the allegation made by several Congress MLAs of the "right wing attitude of the police", a senior official in his office tells HT, "We are finding it hard to undo the damage caused during the previous regime. Recently we shuffled the entire police force in coastal Karnataka."

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