He did not speak a lot. And he smiled even less. Most of the time he sat quietly on his mother’s lap, while she told the story of their family. Aged only six, little Ruben has already seen quite a bit. He is also the only member of his family who is able to see: his mother lost her sight when she was a child and his father, a Christian pastor, has been blind from birth. They live in a little village in the plains of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Life in the rural areas is hard. The hot, arid climate makes it difficult to grow crops or keep livestock. Ruben’s family is used to hardship. But nothing had prepared them for what happened a couple of months ago.
Ruben’s father was holding a worship meeting at their church. Ten to 15 people had gathered to pray when an angry mob stormed the building. They yelled and started to assault worshippers. Eventually, the pastor and his family were taken into custody and taken to the closest police station. “They separated us from my husband, then stripped me and my boy naked,” Ruben’s mother recalled. “And then they beat us again and again.”
The family was kept in jail for three days and nights until they were released on bail.
This was not an isolated incident – and Evangelical Christians are not the only victims. Attacks on minorities are increasing across India. Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, says the attacks follow a pattern. First, aggressors physically assault Christian believers. Then they drag their victims to the police and accuse them of having tried to forcefully convert someone. The police, especially in more remote areas, tend to believe the perpetrators, not the victims. Sometimes local authorities even openly side with the assailants.
Bishop Mascarenhas has a good working relationship with some government institutions, such as the ministry of home affairs. Recently officials there granted police protection to a large Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh, after Hindu fundamentalists tried to force the school’s headmaster to allow a consecration ceremony to a goddess on the school’s premises. After he had turned the group down, it arranged for several hundred people to march threateningly toward the school. The government dispatched 300 police officers to protect it.
Officials in Delhi will respond to such requests, especially if the media is involved, says the bishop. After all, Christians contribute to Indian society in many significant ways. There are, for example, more than 30,000 educational institutions and 100,000 hospital beds under the Catholic Church’s management, with both services highly valued by Indian society. Although Christians are a small minority representing less than three per cent of the population, they trace their presence in India back to St Thomas and have been a vital part of Indian society for nearly 2,000 years.
So why are incidents of hate and violence increasing? One reason is that in recent years, the nationalist Hindutva ideology has grown strong. Its advocates want to purge the nation of non-Hindu religions. Though such ideas have been around for some time, it was only when the Bharathia Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014, with Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister, that they gained wider acceptance. Today, politicians say publicly that the time has come to care more about the rights of the majority than the minority. As the national elections loom next year, the rhetoric has only intensified.
While Muslims are stigmatised as “terrorists”, Christians are portrayed as an even greater threat, since they are allegedly trying to convert faithful Hindus.
“They are using false accusations to incite hate,” says Bishop Mascarenhas. “And nobody in their party or in the government is revoking their problematic statements.”
The government’s own data underlines the problem. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 475 cases relating to offences promoting hostility between different groups on the basis of religion, race or place of birth were registered in 2016 – an increase of more than 40 per cent compared with 2014.
Other research has produced similar results. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Restrictions Report puts India among the countries with the greatest restrictions on religious freedom.
Some are pushing for anti-conversion laws that would make it almost impossible to convert to any religion other than Hinduism. While the first anti-conversion laws date back to 1961, eight Indian states have now introduced so-called “religious freedom acts”.
The name is purely ironic, suggests Fr Michael John, vicar general of the Diocese of Indore, which includes the largest city of Madhya Pradesh, the first state to introduce such a law. “Maybe we should have fought against this law more fiercely when it was introduced,” he says, adding that it did not seem that bad at the time.
The original idea that nobody should be pressured into accepting another faith – especially by means of violence or blackmailing – seemed quite reasonable. But over the decades, these acts have become more assertive. Some require the convert and his “sponsor” not only to inform the authorities but also to seek their permission. “A priest now has to ask the government before he is allowed to baptise a convert,” says Fr Michael. “It is outrageous that government officials should decide whether or not the wish to become a Christian is genuine.”
There is also some risk involved in making a conversion official. Several pastors and priests have faced criminal investigations for “forceful conversion” after a baptism was reported to the authorities. Converts and Church leaders may become targets of mob violence and other forms of harassment.
Tehmina Arora, a human rights lawyer and legal consultant to ADF International, is involved in many cases, including attacks on the Catholic Church. She is also overseeing the litigation in defence of little Ruben and his family.
“Nobody should be persecuted because of his or her faith,” she says. “The Indian constitution grants the right to religious freedom. Everybody is free to practise their religion. But we cannot take it for granted any longer. We have to fight for this right. In too many states it has already become undermined by anti-conversion laws.”
Despite mounting pressure, Ms Arora agrees with Bishop Mascarenhas that there is hope. Together with her team and alongside other organisations, she has won more than 200 cases on behalf of falsely accused clergy and lay people. Last Saturday, a court granted compensation to Christian families who had suffered from anti-religious violence during the 2008 Kandhamal riots. It took 10 years but justice has finally been granted to those who lost loved ones.
For many, the riots marked the beginning of rising anti-Christian propaganda in India. Alongside other churches and organisations, the Catholic Church will commemorate the lives lost in Kandhamal. Its message should be clear, says Bishop Mascarenhas.
“Love solves everything, just as hatred destroys everything,” he says. “Once it spreads, it is hard to contain. This is a beautiful country, where peoples, cultures, and religions have lived together in harmony for centuries. It is a beautiful garden with many flowers. We must be careful not to destroy this garden.”
Andreas Thonhauser is director of external affairs for ADF International, which recently published a white paper on anti-conversion laws worldwide. To read it, visit, adfinternational.org/conversionlaws
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