New Delhi: On Thursday, September 7, the United Christian Forum (UCF) – a civil society organisation focused on Christian issues, based in Delhi – released a stunning statistic: there have been 525 attacks against Christians in India just in the first eight months of 2023.
If this trend were to continue, this would prove to be one of the most violent and difficult years the Christian community in India has ever seen, breaking the recent record set by 2022, and 2021 before that. Vigilante violence against Muslims and Dalits has been accompanied by a sharp rise in attacks against Christians in India in recent years, often managing to escape the headlines.
The numbers for this year are likely to be particularly high, given the violence in Manipur – where hundreds of churches have been destroyed in the last four months. A petition in the Supreme Court puts the figure of places of worship destroyed at 642. The Archbishop of Imphal in June said 249 churches were destroyed in just 36 hours. The UCF data does not include incidents from Manipur.
“All these incidents of violence are by mob violence led by so called vigilante groups of particular faith who are allegedly receiving support from people in power,” the UCF said in a press release.
According to the 2011 Census, Christians make up about 2.3% of India’s population.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India, which was founded in 1951, describes itself as an alliance of evangelical Christians in the country. “Its membership includes over 54 protestant denominations and related congregations (over 65,000 Churches), over 200 Church related mission agencies and organizations and thousands of individual members,” the organisation said in a 2018 report. Over the years, EFI has been collecting data from across the country on attacks faced by Christian community – in the form of violence, attacks on churches or prayers meetings, harassment of those following their faith, ostracisation and limiting access to community resources, and false allegations, particularly those pertaining to ‘forced conversions’.
The National Crime Records Bureau does not collect disaggregated data on attacks against Christians. NCRB data also makes the heavily contested claim that riots have declined in India and the situation is more peaceful in recent years.
A massive jump in number of attacks
In the 11 years between 2012 and 2022, the number of incidents recorded have gone up four times. The first big jump was in 2016, when the EFI report detailed 247 incidents. This number continued to rise in the next few years. The next jump was in 2021, which saw 505 incidents recorded. This rose further to 599 in 2022.
State-specific patterns have also undergone a change.
The number of incidents in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, has seen a sharp increase, going from 18 in 2014 to 50 in 2017. In March 2017, then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and head of the Gorakhnath math, Adityanath, who is open about his hardline Hindutva politics, took over as the state’s chief minister. By 2018, the number of incidents against Christians recorded by the EFI in the state had gone up to 132. After small dips in 2019 and 2020, it was back up to 129 incidents in 2021.
Another state which has seen a large number of attacks over the years is Tamil Nadu. Here, according to the EFI, anti-Christian violence often overlaps with casteist violence, and “victims largely come from the so called lower castes in villages where the dominant groups object to prayer houses and even the entry of missionaries”.
In the most recent data for 2023 released by UCF, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana have reported the highest number of incidents against Christians.
The attacks against Christians are not occurring in a vacuum – and the rise in the number of such incidents coincides with the rise in Hindu nationalism and different forms of violence against minorities by both state and non-state actors. Statements on minorities by ruling party leaders or those holding high office seem to have been a force-multiplier and led to more impunity. “We have seen increasing communal tensions in India, fanned by hate speeches from political leaders promoting a majoritarian Hindu ideology, that incite violence,” Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told The Wire. “While Hindus have the right to practice their faith, that should not include undermining and attacking fellow Indians who might follow another religion or belief. Instead, some Hindu groups, that believe they enjoy the protection and patronage of the ruling BJP, have targeted Muslims and Christians, their places of worship, and even their livelihood.”
One of the most infamous attacks faced by Christians in India was the killing of Graham Staines and his two young sons – one 10 and the other seven years old – in early 1999, in Odisha’s Keonjhar district. Staines was an Australian Christian missionary. The other incident that is often remembered for its scale and brutality is the violence at Kandhamal in Odisha in 2008, which left close to 100 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
While these extreme incidents may have caught the headlines, more everyday forms of brutality and violence against the community continue, the EFI annual reports detail. In many instances they record, no police FIR was filed – in some cases despite a complaint being made. In other situations, the victims do not want to take the cases forward. “Most cases go unreported either because the victim is terrified or the police, especially in the northern states, just turn a blind eye and refuse to record the mandatory First Information Report,” the EFI noted in a 2017 report.
“Most of the time, FIRs are filed against the victims of violence, while the perpetrators are allowed to go scot-free,” A.C. Michael, national convenor of the UCF, told The Wire. “Otherwise the police usually tries to pacify the victims, saying if you file a case then they [the attackers] may become more aggressive, and then your life will be more dangerous.” Most victims of such violence are in villages, he added, and so out of fear they themselves are also unwilling to file an FIR.
While the word ‘church’ usually creates the imagination of a large structure, that is not how most Christians in India pray, journalist and rights activist John Dayal, who has played a role in drafting some of EFI’s reports, told The Wire. In fact, particularly in rural areas, the most common form is a home church – where prayers are offered within a private residence (perhaps of a pastor) or in small, makeshift setups. Given that they are often open structures, these home churches are highly vulnerable – and the most victimed, Dayal said. Such churches have faced numerous attacks over the years, mostly from right-wing Hindu groups. Similarly, prayer meetings being held in pastors’ or other individuals’ homes also become targets of disruption, with EFI reports recording numerous instances where mobs have barged in on such gatherings.
Even larger churches have not been spared – and there have been cases where the government’s role in protecting religious freedom has been questionable. A 400-year-old church in Diu, for instance, was recently targeted for acquisition by the Daman administration in order to ‘beautify’ a football field, before protests and petitions seem to have stalled the plans for the time being.
The hesitation in approaching the police is perhaps further explained when looking at the incidents detailed in the EFI reports. Pastors and other practicing Christians – as well as Christian schools and other organisations – are regularly accused of being involved in ‘forced conversion’ activities by right-wing Hindu groups like the Bajrang Dal. This accusation –without evidence – is used as a pretext for mob attacks, both on individuals and on churches. The police, in several cases, responds by filing charges against the victims of the violence rather than the perpetrators. This has been a documented outcome of anti-conversion laws that a number of BJP state governments have brought in, though other laws too are misused to harass Christians, according to EFI.
In its 2023 annual report, the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) once again asked the US government to designate India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ when it comes to religious freedom. In addition to highlighting anti-minority statements from ruling politicians and numerous incidents of physical violence, the Commission specifically noted the impact of anti-conversion laws.
“These laws are not limited to instances of coercion, and they contain broad and vague language that can be used to target voluntary religious conversions. Common features of these laws include prohibitions on conversions, requirements to notify the government of one’s intent to convert, and burden-shifting provisions that presume an accused individual is guilty,” the report noted. “These laws carry penalties of hefty fines and imprisonment and disproportionately target Christians and Muslims. Increasingly, anti-conversion laws are used to prevent interfaith marriages or relationships, including so-called “Love Jihads,” a derogatory term that targets Muslims and refers to conversions occurring in the context of interfaith marriages.”
Pastors are routinely arrested on forced conversion and other charges, the EFI reports point out, and are faced with an unsympathetic – and sometimes even violent – police force. “Just this year, 520 Christians – pastors and others – have been arrested in false cases,” A.C. Michael, national convenor of the UCF, told The Wire. “But in all these cases, there is no complainant saying ‘I was forcefully converted’. It is a third party which comes and says people are being converted. Where are all these invisible converted people? If Christians are so busy converting everyone, why is their share of the population the same in census after census? Who has been forced? Nobody seems to be asking that question, people just want to make allegations.”
This is also a question Michael has raised in the Supreme Court, in a petition challenging anti-conversion laws. The same bench is also hearing petitions against ‘wrongful’ conversion. In response to Michael’s petition, the Union government has claimed that attacks are being “fabricated”.
The police too is helpless, he said, as they are under pressure from certain groups as well as their political bosses to file cases against pastors and other Christian religious leaders. “No police in the country works free, they’re all controlled and they only want to work for the bosses,” Michael told The Wire.
This attitude – where stringent laws are used to persecute minorities but not those accused of violence against them – “undermines the rule of law”, Ganguly told The Wire. “It is extremely important that political leaders, and in particular the prime minister, who enjoys tremendous approval among communities, publicly and repeatedly condemn communal attacks by government supporters,” Ganguly said.
“The authorities should end bias in prosecutions. Many government supporters seem to evade arrest in the event that cases are even filed are filed against them, their bail pleas are seldom opposed, and worse, even those convicted of serious crimes like gang rape and murder have been pardoned. On the other hand, government critics and religious minorities are not just arrested, but face charges under draconian laws, denied bail, and often even have to endure summary justice such as the demolition of their properties. Prejudice in the justice system undermines rule of law,” she continued.
The silence of government authorities?
This is not a new concern, and one that has been pointed out by members of the Christian community to those in the highest positions of power for some time now. Most recently, on April 13, a Christian delegation met President Droupadi Murmu at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The delegates had given the president a memorandum and discussed rising incidents of violent attacks on the community, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Soon after, on April 21, Michael, who was a part of the delegation that met Murmu, had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi too, talking about the injustices inflicted on the Christian community using anti-conversion laws, attacks on minority schools and the continuing marginalisation of Dalit Christians.
Michael’s letter to Modi, which asks the prime minister not to let anybody try and diminish the diversity and vibrancy of India, came soon after Modi had made a much-publicised trip to Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on Easter. Despite this show of solidarity, Modi has had nothing to say to Michael’s concerns, expressed one month later. “The letter went from the PMO to several ministries and finally to the National Commission for Minorities,” Michael told The Wire. “The NCM has now given us a date, September 21, to meet them regarding the letter.”
While the BJP may think they are politically and electorally significant in parts of the country, visits like the ones Modi has made to churches, the last one on Easter in New Delhi, do little to help the community, Michael said, since impunity for those perpetrating violence continues. The prime minister’s silence on these matters is felt deeply – and his decision to speak up could have made a significant difference, experts believe.
Several human rights organisations have also pointed out the problems that are created when countries that promise to uphold religious freedom, do not bring up the situation in India – and instead can be seen celebrating Modi. Such criticisms were seen during Modi’s recent visits to the US and France. Critics underscored the need for Western governments to differentiate between celebrating Modi and celebrating and showing respect for India.