By ICC’s India Correspondent
11/16/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – House churches in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have found themselves facing a new and dangerous threat. With the help of the local government, an aggressive radical Hindu nationalist group called the Hindu Munnani has shut down multiple house churches using threats, physical attacks, and unconstitutional orders from local government officials. These efforts have left at least five house churches in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu closed over the month of October 2017.
On September 27, 2017, three house churches were issued orders by the local revenue officer of the Sulur division in the Coimbatore district. These orders claimed that they could not lead worship services in their house churches unless they had prior permission from the district revenue authority. According to local Christians, these orders were issued under the strong influence of the leaders of the Hindu Munnani group and appeared as if the Hindu fanatics were working hand-in-glove with the local revenue officer.
“The believers were shattered, knowing that they cannot go to church for worship,” Pastor Suresh Kumar, whose house church was ordered to close, told International Christian Concern (ICC). Pastor Kumar further explained that he and his church were surprised by the closing of their house church as it had been housing regular worship services for the past 13 years.
“My church members were forced to stay away from worshipping in the church,” Pastor Kumar reported. “For some people, going to church and praying to God is the most important thing for the spiritual enrichment of their lives. How can anybody interfere in one’s devotional life?”
Recalling the sequence of events, including attacks on his church by Hindu radicals, that led to the closing of his church, Pastor Kumar said, “It started on Sunday, May 7. We were terrified when we found a petrol bomb on the church premises. We thank God that we noticed before it could explode and have massive damage as that day was a Sunday.”
“We don’t know who planted the bomb,” Pastor Kumar continued. “But we did know that prior to the planting of the bomb in our church, there was a brutal attack on an Assemblies of God Church by the members of the Hindu Munnani in the same suburb of Arasur. Now, we have come to know that that Assemblies of God Church was also ordered to close down by the revenue officer.”
After the attempted bombing of his church, Pastor Kumar and his congregation tried to move on. “We prayed for the safety and security of our believers,” Pastor Kumar said. Unfortunately, after months of prayer, the persecution facing their church intensified.
“All of a sudden, on the September 3, an officer from the revenue department came and told us that the revenue office received a complaint from Mr. Murgeshan (a leader of the Hindu Munnani) regarding our church,” Pastor Kumar told ICC. “He said I had to stop worship and close down the church.”
“Despite this, we continued our worship as we did not get anything in writing from the officer concerned,” Pastor Kumar continued. “On September 27, the revenue inspector came to the church and gave me the letter that said I couldn’t run a church any more unless I had permission from the district authority.”
“To my surprise, more than 50 police personnel were deployed to the church for three Sundays following the letter,” Pastor Kumar said. “Members of my church couldn’t visit me in my house as police did not allow anyone to come in. When I asked the inspector why people cannot come to my house, the inspector threatened that he would file an FIR and send me to jail.”
“They had video cameras with them to get footage if anyone came to my house,” Pastor Kumar continued. “Even some police followed me wherever I went making sure I didn’t conduct prayers in any other place.”
With the help of local Christian leadership, Pastor Kumar applied for and received a stay from the High Court regarding the revenue officer’s order to close down his church. Unfortunately, the stay he received is only good for four weeks. Still, Pastor Kumar is excited by this small victory.
“I praise God that I could resume the worship in my church again,” Pastor Kumar said. “But, I am still worried that I can only have worship for two more weeks, as the stay expires soon.”
Pastor Kumar spent 15,000 Rupees (approximately $240.00 USD) to get the original stay of four weeks. For such a small congregation of 60 believers, it is impossible to afford repeated stays. The only hope for Pastor Kumar and his church is for the High Court to invalidate the revenue officer’s orders on the basis that it violates their religious freedom rights given to them by Article 25 of India’s Constitution.
Like Pastor Kumar and his church, other house churches in the Coimbatore district are under threat. Pastors who spoke with ICC are worried about when it will be their turn to face the Hindu Munnani and the orders from the revenue officer.
It’s not that India lacks laws that guarantee religious freedom. In fact, settled precedent says that house churches do not need permission from the government to operate, making the revenue officer’s orders invalid. Unfortunately, it is the implementation of that law that matters and those implementing the law have already shown their willingness to side with local Hindu radicals.