India’s Christians Fear Further Persecution as Hindu Radicals Push for More Conversions

ICC Note:

As the Christmas holiday approaches, India’s Christian community begins to celebrate the holiday in a slightly more security conscious manner.  Attacks on religious minorities by Hindu radicals have increased dramatically over 2014 and many Christians fear these attacks will only increase during the Christmas holiday. Last week, a group of Christmas carolers were beaten in Hyderabad by a group of Hindus who claimed they were attempting to forcefully convert people. Also, massive re-conversion ceremonies have been planned by Hindu nationalist groups amid reports of forced or fraudulent conversions. Is religious freedom under threat in India? 

12/18/2014 India (Washington Post) – The trouble started a few months ago, when Hindu nationalists swept into a small village where several families had converted to Christianity more than a decade earlier. They held a fire purification ceremony with the villagers, tore a cross off the local church and put up a poster of the god Shiva. The space was now a temple, they declared.

Then right-wing Hindu groups announced a Christmas Day ceremony where they planned to welcome hundreds of Christians and Muslims back to Hinduism. A fundraising flier solicited donations for volunteers to do the conversions — about $3,200 for each Christian and about $8,000 for each Muslim.

After a nationwide furor, organizers stepped back Tuesday, saying the ceremony was postponed. But the damage had been done. With Christmas approaching, Christians in Aligarh say they are still afraid of what might happen on their holiest of days.

“We just want security from the government, particularly on Christmas,” said Ajay Joseph, 39, a lab technician.

His fears echo those of other religious minorities in majority Hindu India, where some Christians and Muslims are worried incidents of religious tolerance will rise with the advent of a new conservative government led by Narendra Modi, himself a fervent Hindu nationalist. In recent days, carolers have been beaten in the Southern city of Hyderabad and a Catholic Church in New Delhi torched by a suspected arsonist. A conservative Hindu group said Wednesday another mass “conversion” event would be held in February.

For several days this month, India’s secular parliament repeatedly lapsed into chaos as members debated religious conversions and a plan that would have kept students in school on Christmas, normally a holiday, and designate Dec. 25 “Good Governance Day.” The country’s foreign minister also called for naming the sacred Hindu text Bhagavad Gita the “national scripture.”

“They are feeling nobody can do anything to them because of Narendra Modi,” said Yusuf Dass, a pastor of the Central Methodist Church in Aligarh. Dass, 32, the grandson of a minister, grew up in nearby Agra and is from a family that has been part of India’s Christian minority for generations. He rides a motorcycle to work that says “Glory to God” on the windscreen.

“They were saying this country belongs to Hindus, and India should belong only to Hindus. I don’t know who is misguiding them,” Dass said.

Christians comprise just over 2 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population and historically have been targeted less frequently than the country’s Muslim communities. Some Hindu devotees have resented the missionaries who have been coming to India for centuries, saying they use charitable work as a mask for proselytizing, particularly to the country’s lowest caste members.

“If missionaries are working in a particular place and they are crossing the limits, then only do we get involved ourselves,” said Ram Kumar Ary, a regional director in Aligarh for a firebrand pro-Hindu volunteer group affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist organization where Modi got his start. Many espouse the belief that every Hindu must work to reconvert those who have left Hinduism for other religions because of threats or coercion.

“It’s a constitutional right for a person to choose what religion to belong to, and if somebody is doing it out of their own free will, why is the government bothered about that?” Ary said.

India’s 64-year-old prime minister has a troubled history of religious intolerance, opponents say. In 2005, while a state leader, Modi was denied a visa to visit the United States on grounds he had committed “severe violations of religious freedom” by not acting to stop Hindu-Muslim riots in his state in 2002.

John Dayal, the former president of the All India Catholic Union and a member of the government’s National Integration Council, said that R.S.S. volunteers (called pracharaks) now have an ally at the top of India’s government and feel emboldened to act more freely now than they have during previous years.

Dayal said that around 150 hate crimes are generally perpetrated against Christians each year throughout India and that this year they have documented pastors and churchgoers being beaten, prayer meetings broken up and churches vandalized. A Catholic Church in New Delhi was burned earlier this month, sparking protests and an appeal from the archbishop for protection. That case is still under investigation.

“The Christian community is clearly concerned. We are actually scared,” Dayal said. “They are acting with impunity, and the government has done little to stop them.”

In Hyderabad Friday, a group of Christian carolers on their way home from a late-night church service clashed with revelers from a local wedding party, according to the pastor, Bheemudu Naik. About three dozen people objected to their singing and began punching and kicking the carolers, Naik said.

“We have been living amicably in the locality for long, but this incident has left us scared. It was God’s grace we survived,” said the pastor, who is still in the hospital. Six others were also injured.

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