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Bishops call for action to help India’s Christians

16 January 2015


Under threat: Christians at prayer during a Christmas service in Ahmedabad, India

Under threat: Christians at prayer during a Christmas service in Ahmedabad, India

VIOLENT attacks, the desecration of churches, accusations of "forced" conversions, and a programme of "reconversion" have produced "apprehension and fear" among India's Christians, the country's church leaders have warned. The persecution is compounded, they argue, by government actions that undermine rather than protect the place of the country's minorities.

The Moderator of the Church of North India (CNI), the Rt Revd Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy, was among several Christian leaders who signed a strongly worded open letter to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, last month. It voices "great concern" about "incidents of violence against our Churches and personnel", concluding with a catalogue of abuses, including the communal ostracisation of Christians (for example, banning them from using common water facilities), physical assaults, and the desecration of churches, including the burning of a Roman Catholic church, St Sebastian's, in East Delhi, on 1 December.

The incidents reflect "extreme police and administrative impunity", the letter argues, and a disregard for the country's constitution, which guarantees free profession, practice, and propagation of religion. They are not isolated, but "part of a series of interconnected actions by various non-state actors, closely associated with the ruling dispensation".

The letter draws particular attention to calls from government ministers for a national law against conversion, and for the Ghar Wapsi [homecoming] campaign - a programme led by far-right groups including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which seeks to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism.

Statements of support for the campaign by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs "question the identity and patriotism of India's several religious minorities", the letter warns.

Several states in India have "anti-conversion laws". In Gujurat, for example, a person who wants to convert to another religion must first get permission from a district magistrate. Last year, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief condemned them, warning that they "primarily threaten not the convert, but the missionaries". The Bishops' letter says that they have been used to "harass, arrest and punish clergy, religious workers and institutions".

"The call for a national anti-conversion law and debate only solidifies the hate campaign against Christians," wrote the President of the All India Christian Council, Dr Joseph D'souza, last month, in a letter to Mr Modi. "The propaganda on forced and fraudulent conversions continues to be used to demonise the Indian Christian community."

Alongside accusations of forced conversions, India's Christians fear the Ghar Wapsi campaign. There have been several high-profile ceremonies in recent months, including one in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, involving 200 Muslims, some of whom later said that they were promised food ration-cards, or were unaware of the purpose of the ceremony. Another mass-conversion ceremony for 5000 Christians and Muslims, planned to take place on Christmas Day in the state, and backed by the BJP MP Yogi Adityanath, was prevented from taking place by the police.

The national secretary of the All India Christian Council, Kumar Swamy, said last week that Christians were being "threatened and harassed" through the programme, whereby "people are forced to convert back to Hinduism."

Mr Modi is under pressure to distance himself from the Ghar Wapsi programme. In the wake of his election in May, some in the CNI cautioned against expecting the worst for minorities under his rule, and expected progress in development (News, 23 May).

His record as Chief Minister of Gujarat, however, was overshadowed by the riots that took place in 2002, during which more than 1000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed (News, 8 March 2002). Although he was cleared by the Supreme Court in 2012 of complicity in the violence, he is still dogged by accusations that he allowed or encouraged what has been described as a pogrom.

His ruling party, the BJP, retains close links with the RSS, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation that has been banned several times. Mr Modi remains a member of it.

"While the Government won its mandate on a platform of 'development and good governance', the radical groups see it as an endorsement of their programme of hate and religious nationalism," warns the Bishops' letter, which calls for "strong political will and administrative action" to end "discrimination and targeted violence".

On Tuesday, D. Solomon Raja (above), of the department of ecumenical relations, ecological concerns and communications, at the Church of South India Synod, said that many Indians were calling for "concrete action" from the government. "Minorities understood the limitations of Narendra Modi and his government vis-à-vis the issues of the minorities," he said.

"They are aware that this government being led by Modi is an offshoot . . . of the campaign: an ideology he has been associated with for decades. . . And in that ideology, minorities stand nowhere. The government must not give an impression that it supports these Hindu groups. There must be a zero tolerance policy against religious-targeted violence and hate speech."

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