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Attacks in Rajasthan State Show Disturbing Trend

Christians increasingly threatened in worrying pattern of violence.

5/24/07 India (Compass Direct News) – On May 12, a Catholic priest moved out of his village in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district after a mob entered his house, ransacked his room and demanded that he leave the area.

In a memorandum submitted to the police, Father Paul Ninama and other priests said village leader Gyaneshwar Chaubisa had threatened to burn him alive if he did not leave Parsad village. Both Catholic and Protestant leaders are appealing for police protection and intervention for the Christian minority of Rajasthan state.

The attack on Fr. Ninama was just one of several threats made or carried out on Christians in recent months. In one incident, Hindu extremists threatened a Christian family on May 6; a week earlier, extremists attacked a Protestant pastor in the state capital, Jaipur.

Two masked youth on a motorcycle arrived at the home of Pastor Than Singh John, of the Believers Church of India, on May 6 and demanded that they leave the area. “Singh, his wife Ruth and two children virtually fled from their modest house in Paldi Meena, a resettlement colony in Jaipur,” The Hindu reported on May 8.

A week earlier, on April 29, extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal severely beat an independent pastor, Walter Masih, at his home in Nandpuri area in the heart of the capital city – while a national television news channel filmed the attack. (See Compass Direct News, “ India Briefs,” May 8.)

Worrying Trend

Similarities in recent attacks – threats and demands to leave the area, followed by violence – is “worrying human rights activists and the police alike,” The Hindu reported. The newspaper also quoted Kavita Srivastava, general secretary of the Rajasthan unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who pointed out that extremists were choosing Sundays, a day of worship, to launch their attacks.

While police have arrested seven people in connection with the Masih incident, including government employee and VHP office-bearer Virendra Singh, those who attacked Pastor John’s family had not been identified at press time.

In response to concerns raised by the Christian community, authorities granted temporary 24-hour police protection to Pastor John’s family. Police also questioned about 50 members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the parent organization of numerous extremist groups) in connection with the attack on Pastor John, a representative of the Christian Legal Association of India (CLA) told Compass.

Extremists had previously threatened Pastor John in February 2006; he submitted a complaint at the Kanota police station but staff there refused to register it.

Police Inaction

A national fact-finding team of human rights organizations and Christian bodies, including the All India Christian Council (AICC) and CLA, visited Jaipur on May 3 to investigate recent attacks, including the April 29 attack on Pastor Masih.

Preliminary findings of the team pointed out “major lapses in the manner in which the assault on Pastor Masih was formally registered by the Jaipur Police.”

Director General of Police A.S. Gill admitted to the fact-finding team that there were reports of increasing number of attacks on Christians in the state, but he denied any lapses on the part of the police.

“There is a pattern to the violence,” noted Dr. John Dayal, a member of the Government’s National Integration Council and the AICC who took part in the fact-finding mission. “The attacks on Christians are never in the form of clashes, as they are targeted against a micro-minority in the state. There is enough evidence available in many places for the police to take action against the VHP, Bajrang Dal and Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad [VKP, Council for Welfare of Tribal People, a Hindu extremist group], but no action is taken,” he added.

The report expressed concern at RSS “penetration” of the Rajasthan administrative and justice systems, and declared the increasing possibility of large-scale violence against religious minorities, particularly Christians, in the state.

Following agitation by the local community and the arrival of the fact-finding team, police added new criminal charges to the complaint lodged by Pastor Masih, including accusations of spreading hatred between communities and desecrating the Holy Bible. Even so, the report found, “policemen later sought to pin the blame on Pastor Masih, repeatedly asking him about [the sources of] his alleged foreign funding.”

Anti-Conversion Bill Controversy

Following the attack on Pastor Masih, noted human rights activist Aruna Roy wrote a letter to the state governor calling for “urgent steps” to protect the Christian community in Rajasthan, the Catholic news agency ICNS reported on May 8.

“Some self-styled … communal [extremist] organizations are actively creating and spreading an atmosphere of religious hatred and contempt,” Roy wrote. “These organizations have repeatedly used the allegation of ‘religious conversions’ to target Christian teachers, their educational institutions and other organizations.”

Roy said the extremists were deliberately manipulating public sentiments in order to push forward the adoption of the Rajasthan Religious Freedom Bill proposed in 2006.

The Rajasthan government introduced and passed the anti-conversion bill on April 7, 2006. Gov. Pratibha Patil however refused to sign the bill on May 19, 2006.

Roy stated that there had been “no substantive proof” of conversions by force or by allurement in the state. On the contrary, she wrote, “merely on the basis of false allegations and suspicion about religious conversion, numerous attacks have been engineered creating immense tension.”

She gave an example of another incident on March 7, where three armed villagers struck one pastor with an iron rod and another with a brick in Hanumangarh district. Pastors Reginald Howell and Sat Nam from the Good Shepherd Community Church in Punjab state had gone to Hanumangarh for a healing prayer meeting hosted by local Christians.

Roy then commended Indian Christians for their contribution to nation-building.

“It is a shame that these acts take place repeatedly and no real punitive and deterrent action is taken by the Rajasthan government,” she concluded.

Jugal Kishore, a local VHP secretary, recently announced that the VHP would pressure Patil to sign the bill.

“We will be forced to launch statewide protests if the governor does not sign the bill in the next two months,” Kishore told the Press Trust of India on April 15. “The governor will be responsible for any untoward or violent situation during our protests.”

Secretive Survey of Christians

In May 2006, Christians uncovered the preparation of a “databank of churches and missionary organizations” by police in Udaipur district.

A questionnaire used to gather information for the database asked for the “ideology of the priest of the church or the head of the organization.” It also sought a detailed description of the activities of Christian institutions, their sources of income and financial aid, legal status, fixed assets, and information on residents of any hostel facilities they may run. It also asked if they provided education and whether they were registered to do so. (See Compass Direct News, “State Secretly Surveys Churches, Missions,” May 31, 2006)

The survey was troubling, particularly as the Christian charity Emmanuel Mission International (EMI) was at the time struggling with a state-supported campaign against their hostels and orphanages. During the campaign, charges were leveled against EMI’s founder and president and EMI’s bank accounts were frozen. (See sidebar below).

Udaipur division, which includes Udaipur district and the neighboring Banswara district, is one of the most religiously sensitive regions in the state. Several violent attacks on Christians were reported there in recent years.

In 1998, Advocate P.L. Mimorth and M.P. Chaudhry of the Indian Social Institute noted that leaders of several extremist organizations had declared their intention to stamp out Christianity in Banswara district by the year 2000.

State’s Role in Persecution

Minority rights groups say the situation has worsened since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Rajasthan in December 2003. Since that time, many observers say extremists have been given “free reign” to carry out their activities.

On August 16, 2004 the BJP government lifted a ban on the distribution, acquisition and carrying of trishuls – sharp, three-pronged knives or tridents – often used in communal attacks against Christians. Two days earlier, the VHP had illegally resumed a trident distribution program.

On July 7, 2004 the government withdrew 122 cases related to religious violence; including five cases registered against Hindu extremists for damaging houses belonging to the Muslim community in Banswara district in September 2002. A case directed against seven Muslims in the same area was not withdrawn.

In addition, the Rajasthan government last year introduced a Social Science textbook for high school students that clearly equates Indian-ness with a Hindu identity, excluding Muslims, Christians and other minorities. The textbook also advocates tough laws to prevent religious conversion, according to an NDTV report broadcast in December 2006.

Christians account for just 0.1 percent (72,660) of the 56-million-strong population of Rajasthan.

SIDEBAR

Harassment of EMI Shows State Collusion in Persecution

In Rajasthan’s Kota district, Christians believe state Social Welfare Minister Madan Dilawar has encouraged attacks on Emmanuel Mission International (EMI).

In January 2006, EMI founder Archbishop M.A. Thomas and his son, Bishop Samuel Thomas, EMI president, received anonymous death threats warning them not to hold an annual graduation ceremony for hundreds of orphans and Dalit Christian students scheduled for February 25.

The threat followed cancellation of the registrations of EMI institutions by the Kota Registrar of Societies and the subsequent freezing of their bank accounts on February 20, 2006. This was on the charges that board meetings of the institutions were not being held regularly and that the chairman and president were blood relatives.

Further, the Kota police arrested Thomas junior, administrator V.S. Thomas, Bible college student Vikram Kindo and chief operating officer R.S. Nair in March 2006 for allegedly distributing the book Haqeekat (The Truth), which supposedly denigrated the Hindu faith.

The same month (March 2006), a delegation from the All India Christian Council submitted a report to the Indian prime minister concluding that the ruling BJP party had encouraged state authorities to harass Christians, including EMI staff. The report named Dilawar as a key figure in the campaign against EMI.

In May, 2006, the Kota administration leveled fresh charges of “exciting . . . disaffection towards the government of India ” against Thomas and his son.

In mid-June, 2006, officials of the state Social Welfare Department were deployed at the office of the EMI orphanage to oversee the management.

According to a regional daily, Rajasthan Patrika, dated July 7, the Rajasthan High Court issued a warning to the social welfare department and its minister, Dilawar, in response to a petition charging him with instigating people against minorities, including Christians.

The regional daily stated that Dilawar had been involved in targeting Christians even before he became a minister in December 2003. It reported that he intensified attacks after taking charge of the department.

In 2001, Dilawar had vehemently opposed the conferment of a prestigious national award, the Padma Shri, to Archbishop Thomas for his service to orphans and lepers.

Although all the EMI leaders who were arrested have subsequently been released on bail, granted by the Supreme Court in May 2006, the campaign and harassment against the EMI continues.

The social welfare department served notices to the EMI on December 5, 2006 and last January 10 saying a committee had been formed to look into the “disappearance” of children at the orphanage after the number of residents fell from more than 1,700 to only 435.

EMI officials say that most of the children had left for summer vacation in their villages in March 2006. Only 435 children stayed at the orphanage, and when the other children returned, the department officials refused to accept them back.