India’s church is exhausted by the surge of anticonversion laws and accusations of illegal proselytization. They’re tired of mobs driving out Christians from their villages and the possibility that many face property destruction and personal violence. Perhaps most significantly, they’re angry at a government that passively enables these actions at best and actively foments them at worst.
Last week, 22,000 Christians across the denominational spectrum and from around the country gathered together in their nation’s capital to demand better.
“This protest is basically to call the attention of the government to the increasing violence against Christians and our institutions. These attacks are without reasons and basis,” Youhanon Mar Demetrios, a Delhi-based priest with the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church told CT. “So, we are calling upon the government to ask how the protection of the Christians and their institutions will be guaranteed. We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary.”
Thousands of young people, church leaders, human rights activists, educationists, lawyers, musicians, and other professionals from more than 80 denominations and Christian organizations gathered at the February 19 event at Jantar Mantar, a historic observatory. The protest was organized by the Delhi and National Capital Region Christian leaders across the denominational spectrum. Many attendees wore white to symbolize peace or wore their traditional attire and sported black armbands as a mark of protest.
“This coming together of all the denominations is not to show our muscle power; rather, it is a unity to strengthen the kingdom of God,” said Abraham Mathew of the National Council of Churches in India.
“It is a cry of our people for their brothers and sisters who are suffering in rural areas. They have the right to believe in their God, but that is being curtailed. There is no other hope for us but only crying to God to save us, and this is a loud cry,” he added.
Choirs from different Delhi congregations as well as ethnic groups from Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and North-East states and the Chota Nagpur plateau offered songs of worship and encouragement in various languages and musical styles. (Many of these regional languages have flourished in recent decades due to missionary-led Bible translation and education efforts.)
But the march also offered a time for many Christian leaders from different parts of India to share and lament the way their communities are being targeted.
Bhupendra Khora, an activist hailing from Chhattisgarh, provided a first-person account of the oppression that Christian Adivasis residing in the Bastar region have been enduring. In December 2022, in what appeared to be a coordinated assault, Hindu radicals in the area offered their Christian neighbors three choices: deny their faith, abandon their ancestral homes, or face death.
Those who chose to stay were attacked, their homes and places of worship demolished, their crops set on fire, and their animals killed and consumed—atrocities that have been confirmed by numerous fact-finding investigations.
Despite the high court’s directive for the Chhattisgarh government to offer aid to the displaced people in the region’s established government camps, the majority of those fleeing have opted to stay in hiding, concerned that they would be compelled to return to their villages after a few days. While some of them desire to return to their native land and normal routines, they demand police protection and justice against those responsible.
“While the community continues to have faith in the leadership and the legal system of the nation, it makes a heartfelt and earnest appeal to fellow citizens to stand in empathy and solidarity with it, to raise their voices at the targeted, violent, and organized injustice happening across the nation against their brothers and sisters, outraging their religious freedom and inherent dignity,” said John Dayal, a Catholic activist, at a press conference preceding the protest.
Meanwhile, multiple Christians in Uttar Pradesh have suffered over allegations of violating the state’s anticonversion laws.
Shivdesh (who prefers to use only his first name) spent 20 days in prison in 2022 on an alleged accusation of forced conversion. The Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh, resident recounted the violence he and his family experienced at the hands of a mob and the subsequent troubles they faced because of the authorities’ cold response.
Last year, the Evangelical Church of India based in the city was targeted during the Maundy Thursday service on April 14, 2022. Since then, 47 local Christians have been detained in ongoing arrests. Uttar Pradesh authorities have also accused the 113-year-old Broadwell Christian Hospital; the faith-based Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences; and World Vision of violating anti-conversion laws.
Patsy David, an activist and lawyer from Uttar Pradesh, revealed an unusual case where last year, the government accused a Christian of violating the anticonversion laws—despite the fact the individual had passed away more than two years prior. This mistake raised questions about local authorities’ investigation procedures and competence, he says.
“The government is not listening to us,” David, who attended the protest, told CT. “Wherever persecution is reported in Uttar Pradesh, we approach the authorities to intervene and help Christians who are being targeted, but instead we see that the authorities start to act against the Christians rather than help them. … The situation in the state is worsening with every passing day, so this united peace protest is the need of the hour.”
Narendra Modi’s 2014 ascension to prime minister has corresponded with a significant increase in incidents of hostility and violence against members of the Christian community in recent years.
In 2015, only 142 verified incidents against Christians were reported on the United Christian Forum (UCF) hotline, but by 2021, the number of calls to the human rights group had risen to 505. Last year, UCF reported 598 incidents, and 57 incidents had been counted as of January 2023.
The violence and hostilities against Christians have been largely concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Karnataka.
Other organizations, such as Evangelical Fellowship of India and the US-based Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations (FIACONA), have also recorded several incidents, with FIACONA reporting nearly 1,200. In its 2023 World Watch List, Open Doors ranked India as the 11th worst country to be a Christian.
According to activists who spoke with CT, incidents of violence against the Christian community are not isolated and are indicative of a broader trend of discrimination against minorities in India. They highlight that eight states have either introduced or reintroduced anticonversion laws since 2017, which are frequently exploited by religious extremists and supporters of Hindutva to target minority groups based on their religious beliefs.
“We demand that the government provide security to all our churches and arrest the vigilantes who are behind the attacks on each church,” said Sanjay Magee, president of Unity in Compassion, an activist organization.
Last March, the Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Bangalore, Peter Machado, along with Evangelical Fellowship of India and the National Solidarity Forum, filed a petition seeking the court’s direction in establishing a special state-level investigation team to register criminal cases and prosecute groups responsible for attacking Christians to help reduce such incidents. In response, the Court has ordered an investigation and report on the list of incidents that were mentioned in the petition, pertaining to the top eight states.
Organizers of last week’s protest also reminded attendees that for the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has been reviewing a challenge to the Presidential Order of 1950, which provides benefits and protections exclusively to Dalits belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist religions, while neglecting the Dalit members of the Christian and Muslim communities. Despite several committees extensively concluding over the years that all Dalit groups confront similar discrimination and atrocities, regardless of their religious beliefs, the Supreme Court has yet to deliver a ruling on this issue.
“The prime minister in his speech in February 2015 expressed that his government will secure religious freedom for every citizen. We are yet to see that in action. It is our hope that the government will respond positively to our concerns,” said Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India and one of the protest organizers.
Christian leaders signed a memorandum, based on the reports from UCF, FIACONA, and EFI among others, that they intend to present to Modi, President Droupadi Murmu, and other government officials at both union and state levels. The memorandum requests justice from the government for the indiscriminate violence against Christians, guidance to empower law enforcement authorities to provide better protection, and stricter actions against the disruptive vigilante groups who impede religious freedom in the country and operate with impunity.
Specifically, the memorandum asks the government for the following:
- To strengthen human rights monitoring mechanisms, including the National Commission for Minorities and the National Human Rights Commission
- To constitute a National/State Redressal Commission/s headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, with community and civil representatives, to address the issues of targeted violence against minorities
- For a speedy closure of cases where false allegations have been levied against Christians, including in the case of late Fr. Stan Swamy, who died in prison, and others who continue to face wrongful detentions and prosecutions
- For the reconstruction of illegally demolished churches across the country
- For appropriate and adequate compensation to Christian individuals and institutions who are targeted for their religious identity, under the central and state victim compensation schemes
- For strict action against vigilante mobs who round up individuals; trespass private property belonging to churches, Christians, or persons of other religions who also have their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; or shout anti-Christian slogans outside police station premises on the pretext of forcible religious conversions
- For basic preliminary investigation to be conducted by the police in cases alleging religious conversions before the government files a first information report
- For the installation of CCTV cameras (to document misconduct) in local police stations across India
- For first information reports to be immediately registered on receipt of complaints by victims of religion-based violence or discrimination
“We would like to peacefully bring our agony and our sorrows to the knowledge of the government that this is what we are going through and it is their responsibility to take care of us, as a minority,” said Saji Esao, the general secretary of the Union of Evangelical Students of India.