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For Christians in Rural Areas, Dangers Hard to Avoid

December 15 (Compass Direct News) – The rape of a pastor’s wife in Elha village, Bihar state on November 29 was one sign of the increased persecution striking rural Christians in India.

Kamlesh Singh Yadav, a resident of Elha who was apparently encouraged by Hindu extremists to disrupt Christian activity in the village, raped 28-year-old Neelam Paswan in a field near her home. In a similar incident, residents of Nadia village in Madhya Pradesh state on May 28 gang-raped two Christian women after the husband of one of the victims, Gokharya Barela, refused to deny Christ.

Pandya Patel, the head of 12 villages including Nadia, then asked Christians to renounce their faith or leave the village. Patel warned other villagers that if anyone spoke to the police about himself or about the rapists, they would be expelled from the village – regardless of their religious background.

In Ranchi district of Jharkhand state, two Christian families were severely beaten and expelled from their village for refusing to give up their faith. The Hindu residents of Dublia village in Kanke Block drove out the families of Raju Toppo and Santosh Karmali in June after repeatedly assaulting them. These families are now living in rented accommodations in the suburbs of Ranchi city.

Rural Vulnerability

Persecution affects both rural and urban populations, but Christians living in villages suffer more due to the practice of sharing common facilities and the presence of hierarchical religious and caste communities within the isolated settlements.

Most of India’s Christians live in rural areas. According to India’s 2001 Census, Christians make up 2.3 percent of the 1 billion-plus population, or 24 million people. Of these, almost 16 million live in rural areas. Most of the rural Christians are Dalits (the lowest level of the Hindu caste system, formerly known as “untouchables”), or from tribal backgrounds.

In addition to violent attacks launched and incited by Hindu extremists, rural Christians face denial of the use of common facilities like ponds, wells, grazing ground for cattle, schools and cremation grounds. At times they are also treated as social outcasts because of their faith in Christ. Villagers sometimes rape Christian women as a means of intimidation, but because of the shame associated with rape, few of these incidents are reported.

Villages in India are governed by village headmen, or mukhiyas, who preside over village courts known as panchayats. The panchayats are locally elected bodies supported by the Indian government and generally consist of “high caste” men.

As an unwritten code of conduct, villagers are expected to approach panchayats rather than the police or a court of law to resolve disputes or report criminal acts. When Christians approach such a body, they do not get justice due to their relatively lower economic and social status.

In fact, panchayats often pressure families that convert to forsake Christianity. If they refuse to do so, Hindu villagers ostracize and sometimes forcibly expel them from the village.

Most Indian villages choose collective deities from the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses and see these deities as their protectors. They fear disaster if the village fails to worship them adequately. When a Christian family abstains from these rituals, fellow villagers grow hostile, fearing the anger of the gods may fall on the village as a whole.

Villagers also gather together for Hindu festivals such as Holi (during which people play water games and consume home-brewed alcohol) and Diwali (celebrated with lights and firecrackers and worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of money). The village as a whole is offended when Christians do not participate in these festivals.

Social alienation also affects the economic condition of Christian families. Rural villages have limited resources and are often self-sufficient. Villagers depend on each other for assistance in raising and harvesting crops or taking care of livestock; without this help, families struggle to survive financially.

Economic Exposure

Rural Christians are often landless and poorly educated, depending on unskilled labor – frequently working the land of high caste Hindus – to survive, according to Dr. John Dayal, general secretary of the All India Christian Council (AICC).

A Dalit or tribal male doing unskilled manual labor or seasonal agricultural work often earns less than a dollar per day. Jobs in the service sector are hard to come by.

Dayal feels that government intervention is required to address the social isolation and economic condition of rural Christians. “The organized and independent churches are not geared to accept this challenge, and this is an issue that the state has to address in consultation with experts and activists,” he said.

The government recently announced plans to improve the social and economic standing of the Muslim minority in India, following a Rajinder Sachar Commission report on the issue presented to Parliament on November 30.

In response to this announcement, Dayal issued a press statement on Monday (December 11) urging the government to carry out similar projects to assist the minority Christian community.

“This development process must not be confined only to politically powerful minorities, but must also focus on the Christian community, which is as poor and underdeveloped as Muslims, but has no electoral clout,” Dayal stated.

In the meantime, Christian organizations such as the AICC and Global Council of Indian Christians provide legal aid to victims of persecution wherever possible, and educate them regarding their legal rights.

“Due to a lack of legal awareness among rural Christians, most incidents of persecution are not reported to the police at all,” said Tehmina Arora, general secretary of the Christian Legal Association of India (CLAI).

Even if these Christians do approach local police stations, police often refuse to register their complaints. Most victims are not aware of legal provisions allowing them to report incidents directly to a court of law if the police refuse to assist them.

CLAI conducts occasional legal awareness workshops for rural Christians and hopes to increase the number of workshops held in the coming year.