London: Political rhetoric and ambiguous interpretations of the Freedom of Religion Acts (or “anti-conversion” laws) are responsible for the high rate of Christian persecution in India, according to the UK-US-based monitoring group Open Doors that publishes an annual World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most dangerous to live as a Christian.
In 2019, India ranked tenth – a first in the history of the list in over two decades. Dr Matthew Rees who authored the report told The Wire that “India has been going up the list rather steadily for the past five years” and can now be classified as a country with extreme persecution. Approximately 64 million Christians live in India but constitute less than 5% of the total population of 1.3 billion.
This report is based on the data Open Doors collects annually through an extensive survey in 75 countries. Church leaders and other community volunteers administer questionnaires to Christians in their regions and then send the data to Open Doors offices in the Netherlands and North America, where researchers collate it to obtain a quantitative figures for persecution in each country.
The ranks are obtained by analysing the following:
1. Pressure experienced in five spheres of life: private, family, community, national and church;
A country with a score of more than 80 out of 100 is deemed to have extreme persecution. India has 83% persecution points and sits between Iran and Syria on the list. Pakistan ranks fifth. In 2014, India was ranked 28 with 55% persecution points.
Factors determining India’s rank
One of the factors that pushed India higher on the list is the “toxic narrative around this idea of the connection of Hinduism and being Indian,” says Dr Rees, adding that it is visible not just “from the extreme end of the RSS movement, but is also creeping into the language of the elected politicians and officials.”
The report mentions how the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, famously described Christians and Muslims as ‘foreigners of the nation’ in 2017 when he was the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson and Ashok Singhal, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, declaring the BJP-led alliance in 2014 as the beginning of a revolution that would turn India entirely Hindu by 2020.
Dr Rees is not hesitant to admit that research findings show that the increase in Christian persecution “is connected to the BJP party.” “When influential people use this language, it filters down to the rest of society and we think that is playing a big part in the mob violence and social ostracism,” he says. The report mentions how Christians in five villages in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra faced mob violence and discrimination in August 2018 where ‘their faith was seen as a threat to that community’s wider Hindu identity’.
“If you are not Hindu, then your Indian identity is questioned, and if your identity as an Indian is questioned then also your right to the constitution is questioned,” explains Dr Rees.
He adds that a “big factor is the Freedom of Religion Act or ‘anti-conversion’ legislation” that is in force in eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand. Data obtained by Open Doors shows that violence against Christians is higher in some of these states.
Open Doors’ data revealed that of the 16,000 violations, religious leaders were often accused of conversion activities when they were taking part in simple religious activities like prayer meetings or even marriages, which mobs would disrupt and report to police as a conversion activity. According to Dr Rees, legislation around ‘anti-conversion’ needs to be better defined.
“We don’t want to accuse the police of always being complicit; there are examples where the police are simply unsure about what to do. But we also have examples of the police taking part in beatings when Christians are taken into custody,” said Dr Rees, highlighting that Indian Christians face double persecution – based on religion and caste/class – as almost 70% of Christians are Dalits.
Open Doors works with governments in the UK and US to lobby for changes in countries like India through diplomatic channels to highlight the plight of Christians and facilitate changes in laws and policies that protect minority communities. There are two main policy changes that they recommend.
The first is the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims under the purview of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to offer them additional legal protection and rehabilitation in case of caste-based violence. The second is a review and better interpretation of India’s Freedom of Religion Acts, so that it is neither misused nor misinterpreted.
The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has shown his support to the Open Doors’ research by launching the World Watch List 2019 in January. He also expressed his shock and disappointment with India. “In countries where we might have hoped there wouldn’t be a serious issue, like India, we know that this is becoming a much bigger issue,” he said.
He has also called for an official review to be conducted by the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen on how the UK can support Christians worldwide. “I want to make absolutely sure when I am meeting a foreign minister, a prime minister or a president in another country, and there’s an issue concerning religious freedom, and in particular the rights of Christians, I want to make sure that it is absolutely on my list of things that I need to raise,” he said.
Lord Tariq Ahmed of Wimbledon, UK minister of state UN & Commonwealth and Prime Minister’s special envoy on Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB), said that “the (World Watch) List helps raise awareness of challenges facing Christians and other persecuted minorities and promotes FoRB around the world”.
Open Doors’ World Watch List has received support from politicians across the UK. John Glen, Conservative MP for Salisbury and South Wiltshire and Economic Secretary to the Treasury, found the rise in persecution of Christians globally as an “alarming” trend while Emma Reynolds, Labour MP for Wolverhampton East found the speech about Christians in Egypt “very worrying and moving”.
Welsh Conservative MP Stephen Crabb of Preseli Pembrokeshire said that the World Watch List Report “reminds us of the continued religious persecution around the world – 80% of which is against Christians”, while Vicky Ford, Conservative MP from Chelmsford believes that “when freedom of religion is compromised you can be pretty sure other human rights are being compromised too”.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Forster also pledged her support to the the Open Doors’ report. Scottish MP David Linden from Glasgow East wrote letters to the Foreign Secretary individually highlighting every country included in the Open Doors World Watch List.
Another senior Tory MP, Sir David Evennett from Bexleyheath and Crayford, took the issue to Parliament on February 5, asking the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, “what discussions he has had with countries listed in the Open Doors 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution?”
To this Mark Fields, minister of state for the FCO replied that they “regularly raise concerns about the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, where this occurs” and “over recent months, ministers and diplomats have raised religious freedom issues in many countries.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not reached out to the High Commission of India in the UK in this regard. The Wire has contacted the FCO to enquire if they have initiated any dialogue with India, but is yet to receive a response.
Recently, the Open Doors World Watch List was raised in the European Parliament on February 13. Independent MEP for the North East, Jonathan Arnott who attended the meeting found it “hugely concerning that India – a massive, vibrant nation with a clear global future – appears in the top 10 of Open Doors’ World Watch List 2019 for persecution of Christians”.
Arnott has been involved in work related to persecution of Christians for many years, but hasn’t yet been involved with work specifically related to India. He told The Wire that he has “always had the utmost respect for the Indian people, and all religious communities – whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Buddhist – in India”.
“Christianity has a long tradition in India, with previous Indian governments having been hugely supportive of the Christian community,” said Arnott, adding that now, “there is a worry that nationalist attacks on Christians are not being investigated and going unpunished. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to practice their faith, and anti-conversion laws in a number of states are preventing freedom of religion”.
However Arnott thinks there is hope. “It is vital that the current trends are reversed, and that all communities are able to live and worship freely. This will make a huge difference, in a time where we should be seeking to strengthen and deepen the friendship between India and the United Kingdom.”
Note: This article was updated on February 28, 2019 to include supporting quotes to the report.