The Persecuted: An Inside Look at Social Injustice in India — Part 2
Reportage by Will Gerhard
Photographs by John Fredricks
A Christian’s Search for Work in India: An Uphill Battle
The bumpy drive from Bhubaneswar, the biggest city in Odisha, to the state’s remote outskirts offers a blend of sprawling, open countryside and bustling, packed villages. Stray cows, goats, hogs, monkeys, and dogs double as roadway obstacles between the many shops and storefronts that line the streets. The owners of these shops are Hindus. Due to the state’s caste system, which puts Christians at the bottom of the ladder, Christians are poor. The most common source of income for Christians in tribal regions comes from the land.
To the north in Kashmir, a group of Muslim background believers, known as MBB’s, search for opportunity but receive neglect, much like their brothers and sisters to the south. Persecution may look slightly different depending on location, but its impetuses is the same. Locals in Kashmir say that the unemployment rate is 65% in this nearly 100% Islamic state. It is likely that the only Christians that are not in that 65% are those who dress and look Muslim, but have not publicly announced their conversion.
One of those MBB’s came with his family to talk to us at a private location. I asked him about his church and his friends with whom he studied his faith. Due to the laws in his state, there was no church for him to attend, no commonplace where they could worship their God together. Many of his closest Christian friends were no longer around. Their days on earth were ended shortly after going public with their faith.
Abel, the auto driver, looks at his side view mirror, the reflection of which shows an anti-Christian billboard. Just down the street, a man named Achmed waits on the sidewalk to meet his family. His calloused hands reflect the work he does as a day laborer. On the outside, his white cap, beard, and outfit could group him with other followers of Islam. On the inside, he has a heart for Jesus. Before that heart came to Christianity, it was volunteering time to help at a disaster relief project following an earthquake in 2005. It was there that Achmed met Pastor Aaron, the Kashmiri Christian leader that fills the immense gap of believers in the state of Kashmir and Jammu.
Several years later, Achmed’s son became very ill, so he reached out to Pastor Aaron. He told Aaron that his son’s condition continued to get worse, no matter how he prayed at his mosque.
“Start reading the word of God because it is alive and you will grow in faith,” Aaron told him. “As you pray over your son, if you believe, God will do miracles over your son.”
After nearly four painful years of illness, his son was healed. He and his wife agreed to convert to Christianity. He says he received peace from God, and a death warrant from local nationalists who suspected his conversion. According to local testimonies of several Muslim background believers, those who are found out to be Christian have three days to convert to Islam. Per Islamic law, those who don’t abandon Christianity are often killed.
Amazingly, Achmed is still alive today. The man who brought these believers and several others in Kashmir to Christianity is the same Pastor Aaron who worked at that earthquake relief site in 2005. This is something Aaron had been doing through community engagement for 15 years prior to their meeting, something he still does to this day.
Serving in the Light of Persecution:
A Bold Man’s Cry to Endure for His Community
“When I came in 1990, my passion and vision and goal was to raise Kashmiri leaders in Kashmir,” said Aaron.
He knew he could mentor them and teach them to disciple others. In 2003, Aaron gathered 27 people to participate in what he described as a “peace process.” He also describes this as the first time he experienced persecution in Kashmir. Local police and military surrounded his house following an anonymous call that claimed that Aaron was baptizing people there. Aaron denied that there was any conversion going on and the police left, though they kept their sights on him from a distance.
Just three years later, Aaron’s plans to start a school were halted when local police and military intervened again. They saw his plan to start a Christian school and left him with this ultimatum: close the school and run away, or you’ll die.
The death warrant he received is called a fatwa, which is administered by a qualified jurist, according to Islamic Law. In his boldness, he stayed.
In 2014, a massive flood destroyed and washed away everything he owned. The flood waters eventually drained but that was not the end of the storm.
In 2015, Aaron was conducting a worship gathering when a mob stormed the building, once again accusing him of bringing Kashmiris to Christ. His noble acts landed him eight blames, or accusations, all of which were false. One of the “crimes” was providing jobs to young boys and girls. He spent 11 days in jail before being released on maximum bail. The final hearing for his case was in 2017. Miracles for Christians in the Indian legal system seldom occur. However, this time, no one came to testify against him. In fact, the man who originally put him in jail testified that Aaron was innocent of all eight blames put against him.
The reality is the violent culture in this state is not leaving. Those who are here to help others are being imprisoned for it. Innocent lives are being taken, many of them children.
New Opportunities, New Life
Daniella mentors young girls as she trains them to give hair and skin treatments. This peaceful scene inside the beauty parlor is juxtaposed with the hostile streets of Kashmir that exist just beyond the building’s walls. These girls learn skills that they can apply to work on their own one day, something their government would never do for them. Daniella tells them about her daughter, who doctors thought was going to be born paralyzed with several serious health conditions. Through fervent prayer, faith, and hope, her daughter was born perfectly healthy. Her middle name is non-traditional in Indian culture, but is a testament to the work that they say God has done in their lives: Grace.
Efforts such as these are made possible throughout India by the help and support provided by Cooperative Outreach of India (COI).
COI was founded in 1993 to address the needs of the most disadvantaged members in India: women and children. This demographic accounts for a large portion of those living in absolute poverty in the country.
In this country of over one billion people, COI’s work spans throughout the entire nation, uniting people of common faith together and offering them support for their ministries. This organization is led by Ramesh Landge and his son Ravi, or “Bearded Man” as many know him.
Bearded Man fills us in on the social climate as we arrive at a new location. He paints the picture for us, sometimes a dangerous one, with a smile. He offers love and compassion to all whom he meets, including those who want to kill him because of his beliefs.
When Ramesh became a Christian in the late 1970’s, the Christian population was less than 1% in India. Today, statistics show that number has officially grown to 2.5%, though many believe that number is greater than 5% and could be as high as 10%.
Since June 2010, Ramesh and other Christians in India have produced a TV show called “The Truth.” They discuss various topics on religion, many of which are controversial to non-believers of Christianity. The program averages 16 million viewers an episode, and for thousands upon thousands that live in Muslim cultures this is the first time that they hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“When they get to know the truth, their eyes pop open,” Ramesh said.
Several thousands have been converted to Christianity through the program since it started less than a decade ago.
Locally, COI holds events through their Love Delhi Campaign that unites young adults in their city for a night of food, music, and a message of love. In northern India, they have been running three different sewing and tailoring centers in Muslim regions for the past 12 years. According to Ravi, hundreds of women have come to these centers wearing their burkha’s, but remove the veil once they’re inside the building because they feel at peace there.
No Compassion for the Children
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to power in 2014. Since then, nationalists have made it a priority to end Christianity in their country. India is now ranked as the 15th most difficult country to live in as a Christian, according to Open Doors World Watch List. Just five years ago in 2013, India was ranked 31st on this same list. According to a petition on change.org aimed at raising funds from the Modi administration for children, of the more than 470 million children in India, 33 million are child laborers, 80 million are without an education, and 97 million are undernourished.
Before they were forced to close their doors for good in March 2017, Compassion International supported as many as 145,000 children in India. These children were given an education, meals, school supplies, clothes, and several other benefits. According to local reports, Compassion closed by saying they had to shut down due to a lack of funding resulting from government restrictions.
“Compassion’s main tagline was, ‘releasing children from poverty in the name of Jesus.’ They did not like that,” said Ramesh Landge. “Compassion International was shut down because the government knew a lot of children were accepting the Lord.”
These kids were taken out of school, denied opportunity, and stripped of many of their human rights because the government viewed this as a threat to their culture.
“The ban severed the influence churches had over various communities across India,” said Ravi Landge. “This meant that many Christian community clinics, churches, and tuition centers got shut down because they couldn’t sustain themselves. What we are seeing is discrimination in the government sector (with the BJP in power) where people groups from minority religions are denied access to good jobs.”
Landge described that this creates a sense of inferiority and economic instability within Christian communities across India. The government recognized that if these children grew up holding on to the Christian faith, it would put a dent in Hindu ideology. So, they denied them education, opportunity, and much needed care.
Hope for the Children
When Compassion International was forced to shut down, COI stepped in to take over the support for as many of these children as they could, starting a project called Genesis of Hope (GOH). Many of the teachers who worked with Compassion before the shutdown continue to work with the same students, but do so at a fraction of the salary they used to make. Genesis of Hope has six centers where they pay for the students education and provide them with meals.
“We continue to still run the six centers passionately, because for us, it was about the relationship with the teachers and kids,” said Ravi. “GOH is a replacement portal for our kids who lost sponsors.”
There are still 350 children who are waiting on sponsors. Those who are willing to invest in these children can sponsor a child for just $1 a day at www.genesisofhope.org.
“If it’s Called an Orphanage, the Government Will Shut it Down”
The orphan crisis in India is not only ongoing, but growing. Any establishment that houses orphans must operate under the name “tuition center,” or else the government will shut it down.
We arrive at one of these tuition centers, where several young children greet us with a smile. Their parents are gone from this earth. Many of them were just months old when the injustice that took place orphaned them. Some were just old enough to understand what was going on; they carry the memories of seeing their parents murdered in front of them and dragged out the door. They never got to say goodbye to their parents, but today they say hello to us, strangers.
They gather by the entrance and wipe their hands across our feet, a sign of respect and gratitude in their culture. Their educational opportunities are few and far between. The care they receive, they share among themselves, from a good samaritan who dedicates their life to helping these children. Just hearing the stories of how they got there is crippling, heart wrenching, paralyzing even. Conceptualizing the injustice they have endured and the lifetime of hardship that has been thrown onto their backs would knock the strongest of souls over. But they stand there. They laugh amongst each other, often looking back at us to see if we understand the jokes they are presumably saying about us.
These young, bold, orphans line up to sing us a song before we leave. No spot lights come on, but the joy they express when they sing is illuminating. They clap and smile and sing some more. Their performance wraps up, and on our way out, they come over again to touch our shoes, not realizing how much their strength and faith has touched our hearts.
“Truth Alone Triumphs”
Many of the individuals interviewed for this story have asked for their real names to be published, however many of the names have been changed to protect the persecuted.
According to Open Doors, 39 million of the approximately 64 million Christians in India have experienced direct persecution. These examples of direct persecution reflect much of the aforementioned: abuse, deprivation of education and work, imprisonment, and death.
If BJP officials stay in power, there is expected to be a radicalized religious movement. The RSS, the radical Hindu organization involved in the riots, were the ones who got the BJP and Prime Minister Modi’s administration into power. Locals in predominantly Muslim states brought up the likelihood of a civil war between Hindu nationalists and militants from Muslim states.
The innocent Christians who were framed and imprisoned for a murder they did not commit, were denied work and an education, and were habitually abused and neglected, will continue to wait justice. They reflect on the pain and persecution they’ve endured in this life, and reminisce on times they had with their Christian brothers and sisters before they were persecuted. They remember these times, these people, and they pray to their God. They focus on the promise of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, remembering that one day they will be delivered from the brokenness of this world.
John Fredricks is an award winning photojournalist based in Los Angeles. His work appears everywhere from National Geographic Adventure to Time Magazine. Passionate about social and humanitarian issues, he wants to impact his generation through a visual medium and put the spotlight on issues around the world. He has launched himself into locations and situations where his life and health were likely in danger in order to use his gift and skill in photography to share the truth. His camera is only an extension of the genuine love and care John feels for those around him.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates