India’s Persecuted Christians

India’s Persecuted Christians

Members of India’s poorest classes who converted to Christianity to escape the caste system, now find themselves the targets of brutal persecution by Hindu nationalists.


On Sunday October 26, two countries of interest to Americans were publicly accused by Pope Benedict of persecuting Christians on a tragic scale. One of the pope’s targets is Iraq, where ancient Christian communities have been decimated in the turmoil unleashed by the US invasion, most recently in Mosul, where they are caught in a struggle been Iraqi Kurds and Arabs. The other country in the pope’s crosshairs is India. On Tuesday, the Vatican elaborated on the pope’s expression of alarm by reminding Indians that Mohandas K. Gandhi abhored religious intolerance. “During the course of (Gandhi’s) struggle for freedom, he realized that ‘an eye for a eye, and soon the whole world is blind,'” Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, said in the address, as reported by the Reuters news agency in Rome.

In India, where a national election, next year, will pit a Hindu nationalist-led party against a more secular incumbent government, led by the Congress Party, there have been a spate of assaults on Christians. Disturbing photographs and amateur videos show ransacked Christian churches in Orissa state in eastern India, where terrified Christian families have fled to shelters to avoid the cruel choice between conversion to Hinduism or death. Bibles and prayer books have been found burned among the ruins of Christian homes.

This is not the image of secular, democratic, modernizing India that its boosters want to see. But unfortunately, these are not isolated, momentary scenes. In late September, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote to President Bush, asking him to raise the issue of religious persecution with India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh. In the letter, Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights and the US commission chair, called attention to more than a year of anti-Christian violence occurring in several states, and said that the national government’s response had been “inadequate.”

Gaer wrote: “If India is to exercise global leadership as the largest and perhaps most pluralistic democracy in the world, Prime Minister Singh should demonstrate his government’s commitment to uphold the basic human rights obligations to which he has agreed, including the protection of religious minorities.”

The pope was even more blunt. He said he was calling the attention “of religious leaders and of all people of goodwill everywhere to the tragedy of certain countries of the east where Christians are victims of intolerance and cruel violence, killed, threatened and forced to abandon their homes.” He added: “At this moment I am thinking above all about Iraq and India.”

For more than two decades, minority religious groups in India have felt mounting tensions and suffered attacks, often politically motivated. Several thousand Sikhs were slaughtered in Delhi and across northern India in 1984, after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards. She had sent the army into Sikhdom’s holiest sanctuary, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in search of a rebel politician, leaving the shrine a severely damaged and desecrated place.

The violent deaths of Sikhs went on, into the 1990s, through a spasm of “illegal cremations,” in which security forces tortured and killed thousands more in Punjab state and burned their bodies to hide evidence, denying families knowledge of their relatives’ fate. India’s Human Rights Commission and its Central Bureau of Investigation have documented these atrocities, which have largely gone unpunished. (A US-based organization, Ensaaf, has compiled information about this tragic history on its website,

In Gujarat in 2002, as many as 2,000 Muslims were assaulted, viciously tortured and killed as their neighborhoods were marked for destruction by Hindu mobs, according to neutral diplomatic reports and on-site investigations by Indian human rights activists. There is wide agreement that local Hindu nationalist politicians condoned, if not actually directed, the pogrom, which occurred after Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire of still disputed origins. A former chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, J.S. Verma, says that in Gujarat (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace), as in other states, the police are often implicated in acts of violence at the behest of political leaders, who are almost never tried or convicted.

Christians account for only 2 or 3 percent of India’s population of more than 1.1 billion. Many of them are extremely poor tribal people or former outcastes known as Dalits, who abandoned Hinduism to escape their “untouchable” status. They have been under attack for years, most often in areas where Hindu nationalists are strong. Many have died. In Orissa, the most recent assaults on Christians began after the murder of a local Hindu holy man, Swami Lakshmananda. Although Maoist rebels in the region claimed responsibility for his death, Hindus ignored that as they went on a rampage. Some Christians have been arrested.

The introduction of Maoists into the mix in Orissa is noteworthy. Bands of Maoists now control swaths or pockets of territory down India’s east coast and into southern states, including Tamil Nadu and Kerala. They are in a sense the competitors of Christian missionary pastors–most of them Indians, not foreigners. Both Maoists and, more often, Christians offer the disadvantaged rural poor such services as healthcare and education. The poor are, in a sad sense, up for grabs.

Countless numbers of Indians have also converted to Buddhism in search of better lives over the sixty-one years since independence. Because Hindu nationalists think of Buddhism (and Sikhism) as offshoots of Hinduism, Buddhists are less often targeted by violence. Christians, however, are routinely accused of forced conversions, which they deny. Several Indian states ban conversions from the dominant Hindu faith.

Christianity is an old religion in India, brought directly from the Middle East in the first centuries after the founding of the religion, long before there was a Christian Europe. The earliest Christians lived in the Indian south and southwest, where their descendants today are often upper-class families who have benefited from long-established education and health systems their ancestors created and fostered. Poorer, latter-day Christian converts, Catholic or Protestant, are seeking some of the same advantages that their betters enjoy, and that Hinduism has denied them. Hindu nationalists seem intent on punishing them for their temerity.

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