Arrests, Beatings and Secret Prayers: Inside the Persecution of India’s Christians
Villagers praying in secret in Bihar, India, amid an uptick in violence against Christians in the country.
“They want to remove us from society,” a Christian farmer said of Hindu extremists. Rising attacks on Christians are part of a broader shift in India, in which minorities feel less safe.
Jeffrey Gettleman &Suhasini Raj. December 22, 2021. Arrests, Beatings and Secret Prayers: Inside the Persecution of India’s Christians. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/.
The Christians were mid-hymn when the mob kicked the door.
A swarm of men dressed in saffron poured inside. They jumped onstage and shouted Hindu supremacist slogans. They punched pastors in the head. They threw women to the ground, sending terrified children scuttling under their chairs.
“They kept beating us, pulling our hair,” said Manish David, one of the pastors who was assaulted. “They yelled: ‘What are you doing here? What songs are you singing? What are you trying to do?'”
The attack unfolded on the morning of Jan. 26 at the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra Christian center in the city of Indore. The police soon arrived, but the officers did not touch the aggressors. Instead, they arrested and jailed the pastors and other church elders, who were still dizzy from getting punched in the head. The Christians were charged with breaking a newly enforced law that targets religious conversions, one that mirrors at least a dozen other measures across the country that have prompted a surge in mob violence against Indian Christians.
Pastor David was not converting anyone, he said. But the organized assault against his church was propelled by a growing anti-Christian hysteria that is spreading across this vast nation, home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian communities, with more than 30 million adherents.
Anti-Christian vigilantes are sweeping through villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshipers. IN many cases, the police and members of India’s governing party are helping them, government documents and dozens of interviews revealed. In church after church, the very act of worship has become dangerous despite constitutional protections for freedom of religion.
To many Hindu extremists, the attacks are justified – a means of preventing religious conversions. To them, the possibility that some Indians, even a relatively small number, would reject Hinduism for Christianity is a threat ot their dream of turning India into a pure Hindu nation. Many Christians have become so frightened that they try to pass as Hindu to protect themselves.
“I just don’t get it,” said Abhishek Ninama, a Christian farmer, who stared dejectedly at a rural church stomped apart this year. “What is it that we do that makes them hate us so much?”
The pressure is greatest in central and northern India, where the governing party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is firmly in control, and where evangelical Christian groups are making inroads among lower-caste Hindus, albeit quietly. Pastors hold clandestine ceremonies at night. They conduct secret baptisms. They pass out audio Bibles that look like little transistor radios so that illiterate farmers can surreptitiously listen to the scripture as they plow their fields.
(Left) A prayer meeting schedule at a house in Bilawar Kalan, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, in April. Village elders recently instituted a fine for any family that allows Christians in their home. (Right) Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra, a Christian community center, in Indore, India, in February. It was raided in January by Hindu nationalists with the help of the local police.
Since its independence in 1947, India has been the world’s largest experiment in democracy. At times, communal violence, often between Hindus and Muslims, has tested its commitment to religious pluralism, but usually the authorities try, albeit sometimes too slowly, to tamp it down.
(Above) Women participated in a secret night prayer meeting at the home church of a villager in Madhya Pradesh in February. Secrecy puts many Christians in a bind.
The issue of conversions to Christianity from Hinduism is an especially touchy subject, one that has vexed the country for years and even drew in Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who fiercely guarded India’s secular ideals. In the past few years, Mr. Modi and his Hindu nationalist party have tugged India far to the right, away from what many Indians see as the multicultural foundation Nehru built. The rising attacks on Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population, are part of a broader shift in India, in which minorities feel less safe.
Mr. Modi is facing increasing international pressure to rein in his supporters and stop the persecution of Muslims and Christians. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body, recommended that India be put on its red list for “severe violations of religious freedom” – a charge the Modi administration strongly denied.
But across India, the anti-Christian forces are growing stronger by the day, and the have many faces, including a white-collar army of lawyers and clerks who file legal complaints against Christian organizations. They also devise devastating social boycotts against isolated Christians in remote villages. According to extensive interviews, Hindu nationalists have blocked Christians from community wells, barred them from visiting Hindu homes and ostracized villagers for believing in Jesus. Last year, in one town, they stopped people from gathering on Christmas.
“Christian are being suppressed, discriminated against and persecuted at rising levels like never before in India,” said Matias Perttula, the advocacy director at International Christians Concern, a leading anti-persecution group. “And the attackers run free, every time.”
‘They Want to Remove Us From Society’
Dilip Chouhan sits in an office behind a copy shop in the small central Indian town of Alirajpur, meaty arms folded across his chest. Above him stretches a poster of a tribal warrior. Mr. Chouhan is part of a growing network of anti-Christian muscle.
Just the mention of Christians makes his face pucker, as if he licked a lemon.
“These ‘believers,'” he said, using the term derisively, “they promise all kinds of stuff – motorcycles, TVs, fridges. They work off superstition. They mislead people.”
Mr. Chouhan lives in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which this year passed an anti-conversion law that carries prison sentences of up to 10 years for any person found guilty of leading illegal conversions, which are vaguely defined. Energized by this law, Mr. Chouhan, 35, and scores of other young Hindu nationalists have stormed a string of churches. Some of the raids were broadcast on the news, including footage of Mr. Chouhan barging into one church with a shotgun on his back.
He said he wore the gun on his back simply out of “fashion,” and a senior police officer in taht area said there would be no charges. Instead, as happened with the Indore episode, several pastors in the ransacked churches were jailed on charges of illegal conversions. Police officials declined to share their evidence.
Mr. Chouhan says his group, which uses WhatsApp to plan its raids on upcoming church services, has 5,000 members. It is part of a constellation of Hindu nationalist organizations across the country, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., as well as many members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or the B.J.P.
“The B.J.P. is really into this issue, big time,” says Gaurav Tiwari, a party youth leader in Madhya Pradesh.
His B.J.P. comrades in the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh recently conducted several anti-Christian marches during which they belted out: “Converters! Let’s beat them with shoes!” In September, they did exactly that: A throng of young B.J.P. workers from the same chapter barged into a Chhattisgarh police station and hurled shoes at two pastors and beat them up – right in front of police officers.
(Left) Dilip Chouhan is part of a growing network of anti-Christian muscle. Energized by a new anti-conversion law in Madhya Pradesh, he and scores of other Hindu nationalists have stormed churches. (Right) “They want to remove us from society,” said Sukh Lal Kumre, a threadbare farmer and a Christian, who sat in a field just outside Bilawar Kalan.
“I slapped that pastor five or six times,” bragged Rahul Rao, a 34-year-old contractor and office holder of the B.J.P. youth cell. “It was immensely satisfying.”
In this case, police officers have charged Mr. Rao, who was bailed out by other B.J.P. members. But in many cases, the authorities take the mob’s side.
A recently leaked letter from a top police official in Chhattisgarh to his underlings, reads: “Keep a constant vigil on the activities of Christian missionaries.”
(Above) When asked about the social boycott of Christians in Bilawar Kalan, Mesh Lal Chanchal one of the village’s B.J.P. members, was not apologetic. “We are doing this to coerce them back to society,” he said.
Another leaked document from a district administrator in Baghpat, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, last year denied Christians the right to celebrate Christmas at a church. And just a few weeks ago, an esteemed Hindu priest presented, in public, with B.J.P. leaders sharing a stage with him, his remedy for those who try to convert others: beheading.
Christians in states such as Kerala and Goa, which have large historic Christian communities, face much less persecution, if any at all.
States in India with anti-conversion laws
But in tradition-bound rural areas where Christians are a tiny minority and community means everything, the pressure is intense. Village elders in Bilawar Kalan, a cluster of small houses and squiggly roads in Madhya Pradesh, recently instituted the equivalent of a $130 fine for any family that allows Christians in their home. At the same time, they are trying to force the few Christian families to convert to Hinduism, warning that otherwise no one will marry their children, attend their funerals or sell them anything at the market.
“They want to remove us from society,” said Sukh Lal Kumre, a threadbare farmer and a Christian, who sat on a dry log in a field just outside the village.
When asked about the social boycott, elders in Bilawar Kalan were not evasive or apologetic at all.
“We are doing this to coerce them back to society,” explained Mesh Lal Chanchal, who is also one of the village’s top B.J.P. members. “If we didn’t intervene, they would have converted this whole area by now.”
‘Irreligious, Anti-National and Hostile’
In 1936, the royal court of Raigarh, a small princely state in in what is now Chhattisgarh, passed India’s first known anti-conversion law, requiring anyone who wanted to change religions to obtain government permission. The concern then, like today, was the rapid spread of Christianity, which was considered a threat to the old order.
Missionaries of that era targeted the bottom tiers of society, including lower caste Hindus and Indigenous people known as Tribals, teaching them how to read and write and encouraging them to question the caste system. This infuriated the landlords and maharajahs who presided over a feudal hierarchy that relied on exploiting lower-caste labor.
Around the same time, the leaders of the R.S.S., a Hindu nationalist group founded in the 1920s, began to articulate their dream of making India a Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu Nation, pushing Christians and Muslims to the side. The R.S.S. is widely considered the ideological fountain head for Mr. Modi’s party.
M.S. Golwalkar, one of the R.S.S.’s early leaders, wrote of Christians, “Their activities are not merely irreligious, they are also anti-national.” He went on: “They will remain here as hostiles and will have to be treated as such.”
After India’s independence from Britain, Christians leaders helped persuade the framers of India’s Constitution to include protections for religious freedom, even as Hindu nationalists kept trying to pass anti-conversion laws. When the debate landed in Parliament in 1955, Nehru, India’s iconic prime minister, argued against such anti-conversion laws, presciently predicting that they “might very well be the cause of great harassment.”
In the decades that followed, Hindu nationalists tried to restrict conversions. Secularists within Nehru’s Congress Party tried to check them. A few states, including Madhya Pradesh, where Hindu nationalists have long enjoyed broad support, passed their own anti-conversion laws, but enforcement was limited and desultory.
In 2014, all that changed.
Mr. Modi swept into power. Part of his appeal were his promises of economic reform and a more powerful India on the global stage. But many Indians were also attracted to Mr. Modi’s deep roots in Hindu nationalist groups such as the R.S.S.
The first victims of the Modi era were Muslims. Dozens were publicly lynched by Hindu extremists claiming to protect cows, which many Hindus consider sacred.
Then attacks against Christians started ticking up – the Evangelical Fellowship of India says anti-Christian hate crimes have doubled since 2014. So, too, have economic pincer movements. Hindu nationalist lawyers and activists have filed scores of complaints against Christian charities through an organization called the Legal Rights Observatory, starving them of funds and shutting many down.
(Left) The damaged roof of a prayer hall in a village in Madhya Pradesh. The hall was raided in February by Hindu nationalists with the help of the local police. (Right) Baptizing villagers on the banks of a river in India’s Bihar state. The country is home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian populations, with more than 30 million adherents.
A few years ago, after Catholic churches in New Delhi, the capital had been vandalized, Christian leaders pleaded with Mr. Modi for help. He was disinterested, mocking them and never addressing the attacks, according to three clergymen who attended an important meeting at the prime minister’s residence in December 2014.
“He acted like a don,” said Father Dominic Emmanuel, a former official with the Delhi Catholic Church who now lives in Vienna.
When asked about the meeting, a spokesman for Mr. Modi said these were “unsubstantiated allegations” and pointed to a speech in which Mr. Modi said he would “not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others” and that his government would be one “that gives equal respect to all religions.”
(Above) “I just don’t get it,” said Abhishek Ninama, left, a Christian farmer, who started dejectedly near the prayer hall that was raided this year. “What is that we do that makes them hate us so much?”
In October, Mr. Modi met Pope Francis at the Vatican and invited him to visit India. Some analysts saw that as progress. Others dismissed it as a cynical ploy for Catholic votes.
Father Emmanuel does not believe a papal visit will change much. Attacks have shot up over the past few months and have spread to the southern state of Karnataka. The extremists say they are acting to stop illegal conversions. Christians leaders say that is just an excuse to stir up a mob.
“Just like they have terrorism to beat the Muslims with,” Father Emmanuel said, “they have conversions to beat the Christians with.”
He added: “I’m worried and very sad that in this beautiful country, with a lovely culture, where we have lived together for centuries, majoritarianism is gaining the upper hand and people are being put against one another based on religion.”
‘Everybody in This Village Is Against Us’
Pastor David, who was beaten up and arrested inside the Indore Christian center, said his first night in jail was terrifying. Hew as interrogated repeatedly and denied food, water and a lawyer. He and eight other Protestant elders spent two months in jail and still face serious charges.
“The cops seemed to have eras only for one side,” he said.
Santosh Dudhi, a senior police officer in Indore, said his officers had acted on a complaint by a young woman who accused her parents and church leaders of forcing Christianity on her.
When tracked down at her home on Indore’s outskirts, though, the young woman, Shalini Kaushal, denied the police account. “I never said my parents were forcibly trying to convert me,” she said.
Trumped up charges are common, Christian leaders say. Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 Christians have been falsely arrested this year. And the Christians have few allies. The anti-conversion laws are popular, part of the B.J.P.’s playbook to use religion as a force to polarize the masses and win votes from the Hindu majority, who make up about 80 percent of the population. And even though top B.J.P. officials have denied any broad anti-Christian bias, some seemed quite suspicious of evangelical activity.
“If somebody wants to convert, no problem,” said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a spokesman for Mr. Modi’s party. “But why is it that only the most illiterate and poor convert? Can you tell me that someone who cannot even write the ‘J’ of Jesus begins to believe in it? How so?”
At least a dozen Indian states, with a combined population of more than 700 million people – half of the country’s population – have either passed laws, handed down court orders or are entertaining measures that restrict religious conversions. These measures are also being used to persecute Muslims, to a lesser degree. Several dozen Muslim men, have been jailed on charges that they forced their wives to convert to Islam.
(Left) Believers of Jesus praying in a village in Bihar. Hindu nationalists have blocked Christians in villages from community wells and barred them from visiting Hindu homes. (Right) “I never said my parents were forcibly trying to convert me,” said Shalini Kaushal. Police officers said they had imprisoned her father and others based on her complaint, an account she denies.
The new laws do not mention Christianity or Islam explicitly, but they have clearly been written to target people converting to a religion other than Hinduism while exempting people who “reconvert” to Hinduism. The measures outlaw conversions done with force, fraud or inducements. Some states mandate that anyone seeking to convert must apply for government permission 60 days in advance. And the laws are often so vaguely written that almost any church activity could be considered illegal.
“You could get thrown in jail for giving someone ice cream,” grumbled one Christian, who did not want to be identified for safety reasons.
(Above) Sanju Devi, whose husband was killed in December 2020, with her mother-in-law in a village in Bihar in February. They are among the few Christians in their area and have been threatened many times.
This has made it dangerous for many pastors. One evangelical preacher in Uttar Pradesh who, like many other Indians, goes by one name – Balram – said he and a relative were arrested in August 2020 on suspicion of unauthorized conversions. Pastor Balram said all they were doing at the time of their arrest was having tea.
At the police station, he said, the officers punched him in the groin, smacked him with wooden poles and yanked out clumps of his hair. He said one officer wore a heavy metal bangle and kept thumping his relative on the head. “His head still hurts,” Pastor Balram said.
A police official, Sunil Kumar Singh, confirmed the broad outlines of the case but denied any abuse, instead putting the blame on Pastor Balram.
“He was doing conversions and trying to disturb communal harmony,” MR. Singh said, without providing any evidence.
Other preachers have faced worse. A Pentecostal pastor was bludgeoned to death in June in the small norther town of Sangohi. Police officers arrested one many who they said had grown enraged at the pastor and accused him of having an affair. The pastor’s family strenuously rejected that.
“It was a planned murder,” said his wife, Sunita Rani. “Everybody in this village is against us.”
‘Everyone Will Hate You Because of Me’
Vinod Patil, a Pentecostal preacher in Madhya Pradesh, is not giving up. Just as Hindu extremists believe it is their duty to stop conversions out of Hinduism, Pastor Patil believes his religious duty is to spread Christianity. These days, he operates like a secret agent.
He leaves his house quietly and never in a group. He jumps on a small Honda motorbike and putters past little towns and scratchy wheat fields, Bible tucked inside his jacket. He constantly checks his mirrors to make sure he is not tailed.
“The Constitution gives us the right to preach openly,” he said. “Still, you got to be careful.”
Hindu extremists have warned Pastor Patil that they will kill him if they catch him preaching. So last year he shut down his Living Hope Pentecostal Church, which he said used to have 400 members, and shifted to small clandestine services, usually at night.
He knows the vigilantes are looking for him. But he insists that he is following the law and that everyone who comes to his meetings does so voluntarily.
“Before, when we had a problem, we’d go to the police,” he said. “Now, the anti-Christians have the government with them. The anti-Christians are everywhere.”
Secrecy puts many Indian Christians in a bind. They believe deeply in the teachings of Jesus – “You get this energy just thinking about his name,” Pastor Patil said. But they know publicly expressing their beliefs is risky.
(Left) Pastor Patil prayed for a family at their house in a village in Madhya Pradesh in April. (Right) Vinod Patil, a Pentecostal preacher in Madhya Pradesh, traveling to remote villages to offer prayer services. He checks his mirrors to make sure his is not tailed.
Muttur Devi, a lower caste woman who works on a farm in the impoverished state of Bihar, adopted Christianity two years ago. Still, each morning, she affixes a bindi, a small circular sticker, to her forehead, and paints a vermilion stripe on her scalp. These are visible Hindu marks that she says help disguise her departure from Hinduism.
“If I take this off,” she said, touching her bindi, “the whole village will harass me.”
(Left) Believers walking to Pastor Patil’s prayers in a village in Madhya Pradesh. He faces death threats for his preaching, so he holds small secret services, often at night. (Right) Pastor Patil conducting a secret home service in the middle of the night at a village in Madhya Pradesh. “The Constitution gives us the right to preach openly,” he said. “Still, you got to be careful.”
One cold night this past winter, Pastor Patil drove to a secret prayer session in an unmarked farmhouse. He quickly stepped inside. On a dusty carpet that smelled like sheep, two dozen Pentecostal Christians waited for him. Most were lower-caste farmers. When a dog barked outside, one woman whipped around and whispered, “What’s that?”
Pastor Patil reassured the woman that she was doing nothing wrong and that God was watching over. He cracked open his weathered, Hindi-language Bible and rested his finger on Luke 21, an apt passage for his beleaguered flock.
“They will seize you and persecute you,” he read, voice trembling.
“You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends,” he went on, tracing the passages with his finger. “They will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”
The farmers sitting on the floor, some holding sleeping babies, watched him closely.
They also checked the windows to make sure no one was coming.