NEW DELHI — Amid a handful of incidents of intimidation and disruptions of Christian church services by Hindu fundamentalists in five states on Palm Sunday and two days earlier, the Catholic Church in India has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop such “repeated acts.”
“We are distressed that people have begun taking the law into their own hands in various matters. This is not good for the country and not good for social and religious harmony,” Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told the Register April 12.
“We call upon the prime minister to rein in these unruly forces and restore India’s image,” remarked Bishop Mascarenhas, reacting to the latest flurry of anti-Christian incidents, with several reported on Palm Sunday itself.
Further, the spokesman for the Church in India reiterated that appropriate action is “necessary, in terms of justice, that those who disrupted the services with false accusations be adequately punished, so that they do not repeat such incidents.”
Earlier, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), which represents the wide network of evangelical churches in the predominantly Hindu country, issued a statement that demanded “action to curtail the non-state actors who function with impunity.”
The five incidents reported across the country on Palm Sunday had a largely uniform pattern. Hindu fundamentalists barged into Sunday prayers, disrupting them and charging the churchgoers of “conversions.” The incidents took place in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
In one incident in the village of Jahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, a mob beat up Pastor Krishna Paul of Believers Church and handed him over to local police, according to EFI. The pastor was released after local Christian leaders intervened in the situation and spoke to the police.
While in some cases, including in Jahanpur, church pastors were taken forcibly to police stations, in others the Hindu nationalists brought police along with them.
“It is important, especially now, as we are in the Passion Week, for, going by the trends so far, it seems the incidents may escalate during Good Friday and Easter,” the EFI statement warned. “It does not reflect well on the world’s largest democracy if incidents like these continue to hound religious minorities.”
“The rash of violence against Christians, disrupting Palm Sunday prayers speaks of a heightened impunity,” said Catholic activist John Dayal.
“We suspect a more direct collusion of police and local authorities, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan [Indian states currently ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)] in an aggressive competition to prove they are the most nationalist defenders of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism], cleverly disguised as a ‘way of life,’” Dayal continued.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers of the states, including Yogi Adityanath of [Uttar Pradesh], cannot shrug off their responsibility and must be held accountable for … encouraging, directly or indirectly, their political and religious cadres.”
Problems in Uttar Pradesh
As India’s most populous state, with more than 220 million people, Uttar Pradesh made international headlines in March after the BJP swept the state polls, and Hindu nationalists nominated saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath — known as an opponent of religious minorities — as its chief minister.
The widespread fears over a hardcore Hindu nationalist leader taking over the administration of India’s largest state were communicated internationally when The New York Times published a March 23 editorial titled, “Mr. Modi’s Perilous Embrace of Hindu Extremists.”
Two days before Palm Sunday, a group of about 150 Christians, including seven from the U.S., were detained and questioned by Hindu “Yuva Vahini” (Youth Carrier) representatives, while they were in prayer at a Protestant church at Maharajganj in Uttar Pradesh state.
The Hindu organization, founded by the militant Adityanath, accused the “foreign visitors” of promoting conversions and even distributing money to facilitate them. However, the police questioned the Americans and other foreigners visiting the church and found nothing suspicious.
Such action by Hindu nationalist groups, Dayal said, “ camouflages bigotry and persecution, acts as a smokescreen and helps evade international scrutiny.”
While Prime Minister Modi promptly condemned the Islamic State bomb blasts that killed dozens at two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, he has remained silent regarding the recent attacks on Christians by Hindu fundamentalists in his own country.
“Islamic terror elsewhere should not blind us to this violence against a community that numbers a mere 26 million in a population of a billion and a quarter and is extremely vulnerable,” said Dayal, who serves as spokesman for the United Christian Forum. “Threats by government members in Parliament and state legislatures for a ban on evangelization, extra-judicial curbs on the freedom of faith and expression, and a penetration of the police and sections of the judiciary by Hindutva elements makes it a real and present danger to freedom of religion in secular India.”
“These incidents may look scatted and sporadic,” said Allan de Noronha, a lay Catholic leader based in the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. “But there is plan behind these: It is to drive a sense of fear into the Christian community.”
“The fear is growing,” admitted Noronha, a former president of the All India Catholic Union.
Father Anil Lakra, an Indian Missionary Society priest at Vararansi in Uttar Pradesh — which is the parliamentary constituency of the prime minister — told the Register that the number of thousands of Hindu who attend prayers at the Matri Dham (Abode of Mother) Ashram has been on the decline.
Said Father Lakra, “Those [Hindus] coming to our ashram for prayers are being threatened and stopped.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.