Celebrations at churches across the country this Christmas Day will be marked by lit trees and candles, hymns and carols, cakes and cookies. And, in some cases, extra security.
As Christian migrants flock in large numbers from states such as Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and Tamil Nadu to urban centres, many are finding it hard to leave behind fears of religious discrimination. At least 200 cases of attacks against Christians for their faith have been reported across the country this year, as per the newly formed Christian Legal Association (CLA).
At Christmas Eve services in Orissa, a mob allegedly led by a leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shot at two Christian children to protest celebrations by a church in the Kandhamal district. “The RSS leader instigated local residents and led a mob of more than 100 people carrying sticks and guns to attack the Christians indiscriminately,” parish priest Rabi Sudhasundar of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, told the Indo-Asian News Service.
While such incidents are mainly in smaller towns and villages, the lawyers group notes an increase in cities.
In New Delhi, home to an estimated 1.3 million Christians, the minority community has been shaken by at least two?incidents ?in? recent?months.
Having a ball: Rev. Vincent Paul with underprivileged children at a community centre in New Delhi. (Ramesh Pathania / Mint)
On the morning of 5 December, at least 100 men entered the Church of Divine Mercy in Pitampura, north Delhi. The men destroyed a generator and machinery, and were overheard shouting, “Church, no church here.” The police are yet to trace the offenders, said a church member who did not want his name mentioned. Police confirmed the incident and said they have dispatched officers on a regular basis to ensure worshippers’ peace.
“There is a general fear among Christians,” says Ivan Moses, a pastor at the Delhi Bible Fellowship. “Although they are celebrating Christmas, it’s not easy.”
On the evening of 28 October, Moses said, four men broke into the Kalyanpuri community hall in east Delhi. A spiritual talk was in progress and about 200 people, including women and children, belonging to several independent church groups, had gathered, when the men started breaking chairs and pelting stones as they yelled: “Jai Shri Ram.”
Moses, who was one of the speakers that evening, says he was slapped four times. A few of the miscreants were arrested after the police arrived. Church members say they were accused of handing out flyers to convert Hindus, but deny the allegations.
They decided not to press formal charges, however, as “we did not want the local pastors to be in trouble,” said Moses. Local police confirmed the incident.
New Delhi is not alone; disruption of church services have been reported in places from Bangalore to Kota in Rajasthan, and the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh. Pockets in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, which witnessed the killing of a missionary family by Hindu extremists a few years ago, say discrimination is common—and believed to be under-reported.
India is home to about 20 million Christians, making up 2.3% of the entire population.
According to a report in Compass Direct News, a US-based religious news agency, two Christian workers were attacked in Bangalore for “hurting religious sentiments” in July. Wrote journalist Vishal Arora, who closely follows religious violence in India: “About 10 extremists from a newly formed Hindu militant group, Ram Sena, on July 8 beat two Christian workers and paraded them half-naked to a police station...”
In the same month, a Hindu extremist group, known as the Dharam Sena, beat up a pastor, stringing a garland of shoes around his neck in Chhattisgarh’s capital, Raipur. Pastors were also attacked in Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa district allegedly by Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu group, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).
When asked about the rash of incidents, VHP’s all-India secretary in Mumbai, Vyankatesh Abdeo, claimed the Christians struck first—by forcibly converting Hindus. “They are attacking on temples and converting Hindus. We have information about Hindus being converted,” Abdeo said in a telephone interview.
The finger-pointing can seem endless. Lost in the debate, says Arora, are the victims. “All over attacks have resulted from Christo-phobia among a section of the society. Violence has grown but, unfortunately, it’s not the plight of the victims, but politics that gets covered in the media,” says Arora, adding that media coverage has declined after the Bharatiya Janata Party was ousted in national elections.
According to Narendra Singh, director of the Rajasthan Bible Institute, harassment was reported from different parts of the state around Easter this year, mostly instigated by, he claims, the RSS. “But, now, we have good support of the police and government,” he said. “Security is also being provided for the Christmas week.”
An RSS official said the organization has been engaged in no such activities.“These are false propaganda unleashed by the missionaries,” said national spokesman Ram Madhav in a telephone interview.
At least seven states have introduced some form of anti-conversion legislation, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.
Rajasthan introduced the legislation when President Pratibha Patil was the governor, but it has yet to become a law. Himachal Pradesh enacted the law a few months ago, while Orissa passed it last year.
But conversions, say Christian advocates, should not be confused with those who choose to practise—or even convert—to their religion. “I see this as manipulation and hijacking of the Constitution. It’s a failure of the administration to protect communities who are being targeted in the question of conversion,” said M.D. Thomas, national director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference?of India’s Commission for Religious Harmony.
While nobody has yet been convicted of forced conversions, 62 people have been arrested, of these 28 in Madhya Pradesh between 2005 and 2006. The rising level of attacks from Hindu extremists has brought at least 300 Christian lawyers to organize to protect religious liberty and minority rights, and educate Christian workers about their rights.
The Christian association CLA, which was registered in March, seeks to provide legal aid and training. “It’s an uncompromising commitment to maintain justice in the courts,” says Robin Ratnakar David, who is CLA president in his personal capacity and not as a partner of New Delhi-based law firm, Dua and Associates.
In the days leading up to Christmas, an atmosphere of revelry marked many celebrations of Christians around New Delhi.
On Saturday, 20 carol singers set out from the St Michael’s Church in central New Delhi to bless the homes of friends and relatives scattered around the Capital.
On Sunday, at The Assemblies of God here, after enjoying a variety show, the mostly Tamilian congregation settled down to a lunch of chicken, vegetable, rice and sweets. Gifts of bags, pencil and tiffin boxes were distributed to eager children, whose parents mostly work as drivers, maids and teachers.
“They are so happy, it’s good to get something new, it gives them new hope,” says the Rev. Vincent Paul. But he said celebrations have occurred with security guards posted nearby. And the church often contends with questions from random visitors.
“We don’t know who these people are, but they do inquire if we are converting people,” Paul said. “We ask them to go talk to the people, the people who love Jesus Christ.”