Reports of rising Christian persecution in India have reached the country’s Supreme Court, which last week directed eight Indian states to verify the claims of Christian groups that filed a petition for protection.
The petition, which was filed by Archbishop Peter Machad, the National Solidarity Forum and the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), noted approximately 500 reported attacks against Christians in 2021 and about 200 attacks just within the first five months of 2022. The Christians pleaded for both a federal investigation and for police protection of churches.
The Indian government dismissed such claims as based on “half-baked and self-serving facts and self-serving articles and reports… based upon mere conjecture,” and speculated on “some hidden oblique agenda” driving the petitioners, according to the WHD News. Before rendering a judgment, the high court therefore ordered the chief secretaries of eight Indian states to compile information on the incidents and send their report to the federal interior ministry within four months.
The petition from the Christians in India comes amid increased attacks against them from far-right Hindu groups as multiple Indian states have passed so-called “anti-conversion” laws. Such laws ostensibly aim to prevent forcible conversion from one religion to another, but critics claim they are being used to violate the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.
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A report published Dec. 13, 2021, by EFI’s religious liberty commission claimed that continuous talk from the government about anti-conversion law has emboldened anti-Christian vigilantes and created “an atmosphere of fear and apprehension” among the Christian community in India.
At 80% of the population, the vast majority of India’s 1.4 billion people are Hindus, and more than 10% are Muslims. There are an estimated 30 million to 70 million Christians in India – about a 5% minority – but the government does not release accurate statistics about its Christian population, according to international humanitarian nonprofit Voice of the Martyrs.
In the prayer guide it releases each year, Voice of the Martyrs labeled India a “hostile” country, where “Hindu-nationalist informants live in nearly every village and report on the activities of Christians, resulting in attacks and arrests.”
According to the persecution watchdog, Christian churches in India are subject to demolition or arson, worship services are disrupted, Bibles are confiscated, and pastors have been beaten, imprisoned or even killed. The clergy who face legal trouble often face accusations of forced Christian conversion that later prove to be false.
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In an interview with WHD News Digital last year, Archbishop Joseph D’Souza said he is concerned about India’s image in the world because of the escalating attacks against Christians.
D’Souza, who is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India, said it has “become an open season for attacks against Christian minorities” in the country.
“This is not ultimately about India’s Christians and Christian community,” said D’Souza. “It’s ultimately about the rights of the low caste and the untouchables.”
Noting the appeal Christianity has for society’s outcasts, he said he sees the ongoing attacks as a concerted effort “from an upper-caste Hindu elite that does not want these people to exercise whatever rights they have, including the right to believe or not believe; to stay within the caste system or not stay within the caste system.”
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Todd Nettleton, chief of media relations for Voice of the Martyrs, was not surprised that the Indian government has dismissed the claims of Christian persecution, explaining to WHD News Digital how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is one of India’s main Hindu nationalist organizations.
Nettleton doubts Modi will admit to Christian persecution in his country, noting how members of his own government have called India “Hindustan,” or “land of the Hindus.”
“The anti-conversion laws are one part of the story,” said Nettleton. “But even without laws or without the government formally sanctioning Christians, any radical Hindu that attacks a Christian knows that he is acting in accordance with government wishes, and knows that he likely will not face a fierce, motivated prosecution for his crimes.”
Nettleton said his organization has also received reports of “a nationwide anti-missionary network” that hands out cards with a phone number on it for anyone to call if they witness Christian missionary activity. “Then they send in people to make trouble for the Christians doing outreach – legal trouble or physical threats,” he added.
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Predicting the Indian Supreme Court’s ultimate response to the Christians’ petition is difficult, Nettleton said. “There is such an attitude within the government against Christianity, against anything other than Hinduism. So you hope that the Supreme Court will follow the law and hold out for religious freedom, but it’s hard to feel super hopeful when you see everything else that’s going on in India.”