As India announces the world’s largest democratic election, there are reports of a sharp rise in attacks against Christians – and warnings that the elections could make that worse.
Targeted violence and acts of hatred against Christians are up by 57 per cent compared with last year.
‘With elections pending, Release International warns violence is likely to increase against India’s Christians,’ says Paul Robinson, CEO of Release, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.
The figures are based on the latest findings of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. They record 77 incidents of hatred and violence against Christians in the first two months of 2019 – up from 49 cases over the same period last year.
The latest attacks include two murders – one in Odisha and the other in Chhattisgarh by Maoist militants. Both were carried out in February. In other cases of targeted violence, Christians have been forced to run for their lives.
The attacks are not just by militants – Christians also face hostility from the authorities. Female police officers broke up a Sunday service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested four women and two men, including the female pastor who was leading worship.
Later at the police station, the woman pastor, named as Sindhu Bharti, was beaten unconscious. According to a witness, police thought she was faking it and poured scalding tea into her mouth.
The police have charged the Christians with intent to offend religious feelings, defiling a place of worship and rioting.
Police join in
In Tamil Nadu, police have joined with Hindus going door-to-door telling Christians not to meet for worship, according to reports. Elsewhere, they have been ordered to leave their churches.
The latest report documents 325 incidents against Christians in India in 2018. Forty per cent of the attacks are taking place in Uttar Pradesh, where the Evangelical Fellowship of India believes a systematic campaign against the tiny Christian minority is taking place. The number of attacks has been building steadily there since September. Disruption of church services is common.
Violence is likely to increase ahead of India’s elections. The electoral commission has just announced that the world’s biggest poll is to begin on April 11 and is expected to continue for six weeks. Given the rise in right-wing extremism in India, the elections could herald yet more attacks on Christians, warns Release International.
Says Release CEO Paul Robinson: ‘During a recent trip to India we met Steeven [correct], a Christian pastor who was beaten up by militants after he applied to a court for permission to build a church.
‘Seven people beat him up outside the court with rods and sticks. Then they took him to an animal shed, kicked him, gave him an electric shock and partially strangled him with rope. Finally, they took him to a Hindu temple, beat him again and forced him to sign over the land he had bought for the church building.
‘Members of the ruling Hindu Nationalist BJP have threatened Pastor Steeven to leave the area or they will kill him. Such attacks are growing increasingly common. And violence is expected to rise ahead of Indian elections later this year.
‘Release is calling for prayer and support for Christians such as Pastor Steeven, who face intimidation and oppression for the sake of the gospel.’
India’s 28m Christians make up a little over two per cent of the country’s 1.3bn population. Despite the latest murders by Maoists, Christians are more commonly attacked by right-wing Hindu groups, who believe that Indians must be Hindus. They are angered by the increasing conversions to Christianity by the Dalit underclass. These are sometimes referred to as the ‘untouchables’ and often suffer extreme poverty.
Through its international network of missions Release International is active in more than 30 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.