India investigates rising violence against Christians

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Attacks against Christians are rising, fuelled by right-wing nationalism, while growing numbers of Christians are being arrested under anti-conversion laws.

Two investigations are underway into the alarming rise in attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in India.

The United Christian Forum (UCF) has recorded 525 violent attacks to the end of August, more than for the entire previous year. The UCF say attacks are rising ‘not just year-on-year, but month-on-month’.

Investigations are being carried out by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the Indian government’s Minorities Commission.

UCF has recorded 525 violent incidents across 23 Indian states to August this year. This is a sharp increase on the figure of 505 attacks for the whole of 2022, suggesting an annualised rise of more than 45 per cent.

Anti-conversion laws

UCF says the growing violence follows the passing of sweeping anti-conversion laws in almost 40 per cent of India’s 28 states. Most of those states are governed by the ruling nationalist BJP.

And UCF say the number of attacks against Christians has risen significantly since Premier Narendra Modi’s BJP took power in 2014.

Anti-conversion laws supposedly target conversion by force or allurement. But the loose wording means any kind of charitable work could be considered a form of bribery.

Congregations accused of forced conversion have had their buildings ransacked and property destroyed.

The United Christian Forum say 520 Christians have now been arrested and accused of forced conversions. According to International Christian Concern, since 2020 nearly 400 Christians have been charged and jailed in Uttar Pradesh alone. 50 were arrested in September.

‘Weaponising the law’

The US-based Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) has accused BJP states of weaponising religious conversion laws to target religious minorities.

According to IAMC in Uttar Pradesh this September 17 Christians were arrested accused of bribing Hindus to convert to Christianity.

In the same state a Christian couple were arrested at their wedding along with nine pastors including the bride’s father, after Hindu nationalists claimed the wedding was a ‘conversion event’.

Also in Uttar Pradesh, a pastor, his wife, and their three-year-old son were imprisoned after holding a prayer service in their home. Pastor Harendra Singh and his wife Priya were taken into custody charged with ‘luring innocent people to Christianity’. They had no choice but to bring their young child with them into the prison.

There are signs that the higher authorities may be saying enough is enough. In September, the High Court in Allahabad supported the right of Christians to share their teaching and give away Bibles. The court granted bail to Christians accused of breaking the anti-conversion law.

Dismissing the prosecution case to withhold bail, the High Court stated that the accused ‘were involved in providing good teachings to children and promoting the spirit of brotherhood among the villagers.’ The High Court ruled that distributing Bibles and educating children could not constitute an offence under the anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh.

‘Release International welcomes this ruling and will be looking for it to take effect throughout the state,’ says Paul Robinson, the CEO of RI, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide. ‘More than that, we hope that other states will now review and reconsider their own anti-conversion laws.’

Targeting Christians

Human Rights Watch (HRW) claim these laws are often misused by police to target Christians, particularly from the Dalit or Adivasi communities.

India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, heads the UCF list of states most hostile towards Christians. Others include Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

And in Manipur, the Telegraph India reported 254 churches were damaged in recent tribal clashes. The UCF say ‘all these incidents are mob violence led by vigilante groups’.

Human Rights Watch also flag up the growing attacks. They state: ‘Over the last decade there has been an undeniable increase in the number and frequency of attacks against religious minorities in India, especially Muslims and Christians.’

HRW argue that under the BJP violence is being ‘normalised’ against minorities and impunity is becoming institutionalised.

‘Violence provoked’

HRW told USCIRF, ‘Violence is often being provoked… during Hindu religious processions led by BJP-affiliated groups, in which some brandish swords and weapons.’

Also giving evidence to USCIRF was the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Fernand de Varennes. He warned: ‘India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of instability, atrocities and violence, because of the massive scale and gravity of the violations and abuses targeting mainly religious and other minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs… It is systematic and a reflection of religious nationalism.’

Since 2020 USCIRF has been recommending that the US Department of State should designate India as a country of particular concern.

And a recent Persecution Trends report by UK-based Release International also named India as a nation where persecution was rising alarmingly.

Along with the USCIRF inquiry, a parallel investigation is being conducted by India’s Minorities Commission. But Christian leaders said it had failed to reassure them that the BJP was serious about addressing persecution that was targeting the church.

UCF spokesman John Dayal pointed out to the Catholic News Agency that ‘the Commission has no Christian member.’

‘Alarming rise’

‘The rise in attacks against Christians in India is deeply alarming,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Equally worrying is the denial in India that anti-Christian violence is indeed growing. We hope these investigations and reports will be received as a clear call to both India and the international community to stop the violence.’

Release International has long been working in India help the church respond to attacks and equip them. RI partners have provided legal aid to those accused of fraudulent conversions and have held conferences for pastors in areas facing significant cases of intimidation and violence. RI also provides Bibles in local languages.

India is the world’s largest democracy. Hindus make up around 75 per cent of the population, Muslims some 14 per cent, and Christians around 5 per cent.

The country’s constitution guarantees full religious freedom of worship and witness.

UK-based Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families, Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.