Security guards at churches in India’s capital, New Delhi, were stepped up over the Christmas holiday amid fears of incidents of persecution and religious intolerance were high. Last year, six churches in the Delhi area were attacked or vandalized in the months leading up to and around the Christmas holiday. Many Christians blamed Hindu radicals. Officially, the Delhi police blamed random vandals and bad electricity connections. Over the past year, Christians in India have recorded officially 194 attacks on the Christian community. This number is likely very low as many of the incidents of persecution are not reported and happen in India’s rural villages. Will 2016 be another tough year for Christians or will the government finally take action to promote the religious freedom rights of all its citizens?
12/31/2015 India (Telegraph) – When Father Anthony Francis rose early to open his church on Christmas Day, two sleepless souls had already been camped on its doorstep for hours.
They were among the hundreds of armed police standing 24-hour guard over Delhi’s chapels, churches and cathedrals during the festive period.
The church in question is in fact a local community centre – the actual St Sebastian’s Church, just next door, was burnt down in a mysterious blaze one year ago, in one of six suspected attacks on Delhi’s churches last Christmas.
Even though investigations officially blamed the incidents on random vandalism and faulty electrical wiring, a threat analysis was carried out by police chiefs in the following weeks.
The result was 1,500 dedicated guards now in place to reassure anxious congregations.
But one year on, with no culprits apprehended, Delhi’s Christian congregations are in little doubt as to who was behind the attacks.
“There was a desperate fear for a few days that they are attacking the churches now to suppress the Catholics,” said Father Cyril Patrick of west Delhi’s Church of the Resurrection, which also saw its nativity manger burnt to the ground last January.
“The fear was Hindu nationalists.”
India’s ruling BJP party, which is often linked to more extreme Hindu nationalist groups, has distanced itself from the attacks, and won praise from some quarters for leading the security response.
“Immediate action was taken on the part of the police and the administration also. The government is serious about it,” said Abdul Rasheed Ansari, a BJP spokesman.
“The people involved are in isolation. Naturally there are fanatics in any religious groups. The Rightists in every religion want to cause certain things.”
But others have questioned whether efforts really have been made to identify the culprits.
“If the police did find out who started the fire, will they reveal it? Are they free to? They are puppets of the government,” said Father Francis.
And while attacks on Muslims by Hindu fundamentalists have made international headlines, violence against India’s Christians continues.
Christian activists recorded some 194 religiously motivated attacks in India on members of their faith over the 12 months to May, including seven deaths in the past year.
Just this month, hundreds of Christians in Uttar Pradesh wrote an open letter to Narendra Modi, the prime minister, urging him to take action against a rise in the number of attacks against their community by “far-Right groups”.
Among the incidents, a priest was beaten, his car set ablaze and his Bible torn to shreds by a mob of Hindu nationalists. When contacted by the Telegraph, he was afraid to speak for fear of reprisals.
Soon after, a Christian graveyard outside the city of Meerut which contained the graves of many Britons from the colonial era was desecrated.
“Various Hindu fundamentalist groups are behind it,” said Vijayesh Lal, of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).
“Even now there never goes a day when we don’t hear about three or four incidents.”
Attacks on India’s Christian community – which makes up just two per cent of the population, but numbers 24 million people – were extremely rare until the late 1990s.
But in 1998, a Hindu mob killed Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children by burning them alive as they slept in their car in Orissa, allegedly for his proselytizing activity.
Since then, there has been a dramatic increase.
The same southern Indian state witnessed even worse anti-Christian bloodshed 10 years later. The 2008 attacks in Kandhamal – sparked by the murder of a local Hindu leader who was heading a campaign to reconvert the Christian tribal people back to Hinduism – killed dozens, and prompted Pope Benedict to speak out. Indeed, “religious conversion” continues to be a source of controversy between the faiths, with evangelical Christian missionaries in particular accused of luring Indians – particularly those from tribal communities – to switch faiths.
One member of the RSS – a powerful political group closely affiliated to Mr Modi’s ruling BJP party – even claimed last year that Mother Teresa’s good deeds had been conducted purely to promote conversion to the Catholic faith.
“It’s like to be a Christian is a crime against the nation, and Christians don’t have the freedom to propagate their faith,” said Anil Cuoto, the Catholic Archbishop of Delhi.
“Since that time Christians, in order to call ourselves a Christian, would hesitate or feel frightened.”
BJP members have attempted to table “anti-conversion bills” and even a constitutional amendment to stop the alleged practice.
Though unsuccessful, it is feared that polarizing gestures like these may inflame hatred.