On the evening of March 21, 2018, a young Hindu man, who sculpted at a local temple in Southeast India, climbed the stairs to the rooftop of the home of an elderly woman in her mid-60s and attacked her while she prayed. Chadarajupalli Subbaravamma died that day reading her Bible. Her persecutor later admitted he wanted to kill her because she had left her gods and was now following a “foreign god.”
Also last March in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh, India’s third-largest state, villagers made boards with messages stating that “foreign religious preaching” was prohibited there.
On January 20, 2018 in Tamil Nadu state, which shares a border with Andhra Pradesh, the body of Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy was found hung from the thatched roof of his house, a week after he complained to police about opposition from radical Hindus.
In northern India on August 5, 2018, 9-year-old Anjali was playing with her friends in Gurdaspur district when three men lured her away with the promise of a guava. The men gang-raped her before strangling her to death with a telephone wire. A local pastor told media that Anjali’s parents had recently become Christians, and that they had been repeatedly threatened. He said he believed her murder was used as a warning to others who might consider changing their religion to Christianity. He also reported that an increasing number of people in that area had been converting to Christianity, stirring up increasing opposition and violent threats.
These attacks give us a glimpse into the threat 65 million Christians in India are facing today in this land of 1.3 billion people. The world’s second-most populous country ranks as the 10th most dangerous country for Christians on the 2019 World Watch List—up from No. 11 in 2018 and No. 15 in 2017.
A deadly narrative for Christians in India
A framed sign posted in an airport in Nagpur, India, illustrates the reality Christians are living with each day in India.
According to Open Doors’ special report focusing on Christian persecution in India, titled “We’re Indians Too,” since 2014 persecution incidents against Christians have risen 400 percent. In only the first three months of 2018, more incidents (affecting 10,300 individuals)—including violence, property destruction, forced conversion to Hinduism and false accusations of forceful conversion—were reported than throughout 2014 or 2015. But this number is only the tip of the iceberg, researchers say, as increasing numbers of persecution acts go unreported for fear of the consequences other Christians have encountered.
The rapidly increasing numbers indicate that in 2019, the situation for Christians and other religious minorities in India is at a tipping point.
These escalating numbers stem from a nationalist agenda. Hindu extremist groups have created a deadly narrative: “If you’re not Hindu, you’re not Indian.” “True Indians” are defined by their ability to call India both their father land and their holy land.
As a result, India’s religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, are considered a threat to India’s unity because, the ideology purports, their love and allegiance lie outside India. The narrative implies that because a non-Hindu is not a fully-fledged member of Indian society—who enjoys the full rights afforded to them by the Constitution—their worth and dignity are in question.
That ideology has been espoused by those in India’s halls of power. Some regional leaders have vowed to rid the country of Christians and Muslims by 2021.
One leader declared, “Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) by 2021. The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here. So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here.”
Being a Christian in India in 2019
The largest number of persecution incidents against Christians by state (based on Open Doors’ findings: “We’re Indians Too”).
The ever-spreading ideology has placed at risk the lives and livelihood of Indians who follow Jesus, especially in the six top states where persecution incidents are most prevalent (see the graph above).
What does life and society look like for our Indian brothers and sisters in these states and beyond?
- Hindu radicals feel they can attack Christians with impunity. Because of a lack of little consequence for persecutors, Christians in India live with an increasing threat of attack. Those who are attacked know they have little legal recourse.
- Discrimination is common in India, finding its roots in the age-old caste system. The caste system affects Christians all over India because most converts to Christianity come from the lower castes or from the Dalits (the “untouchable” caste). Often Christian Dalits are deprived of water, food rations, education and employment.
- There is a significant increase in the number of local pro-Hindu political groups and youth wings, plus an increased number of open meetings and camps. Young people are educated in militant nationalism and are encouraged to display hatred towards other religions. Christian parents in India live on guard for your children; youth are under increasing risk of both persecution and being drawn in to these groups.
- Police increasingly follow the opinion of the mob. Believers live their lives knowing you’re not safe among their Hindu neighbors and have little protection from law enforcement when a mob gathers.
- Vandalism of personal and church property is a regular occurrence. Houses and churches are burned down, farms are destroyed. Regardless of your background—from middle class to the poorest—destruction of property is a weapon used to force out Indian Christians and intimidate other believers around them.
- Discrimination on the job is also a tool. Christian businesses, from a rice mill to a bicycle repair shop, are routinely boycotted. Losing their job because of their faith is also a common reality for our brothers and sisters.
- If you’re a woman in India and you convert to another faith, you can expect to be homeless. Numerous accounts to Open Doors tell the stories of women who are beaten and forced out of their homes by their Hindu husbands. Single mothers are specifically vulnerable with little opportunity to provide for their children. Example: In January 2018, a husband beat his 38-year-old wife because of her Christian faith, before burning her clothes and expelling her from home along with her four children.
- Open Doors’ special report indicates that being a Christian in India also means living with the threat of false charges. The country’s anti-conversion laws are one of the main sources of Christian persecution. Anti-conversion laws exist in eight states in the country—Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. These states account for more persecution violence than all of India’s other 21 states combined.
Violence is significantly more prominent in states that have passed these laws compared to those that have not—indicating the law’s tendency to create an environment of hostility and intolerance:
(based on Open Doors’ findings: “We’re Indians Too”)
Where water is a weapon
In October 2014, a mob of Hindu extremists glued a picture of a Hindu god on a water pump located outside a church and told the Christians they no longer had access to this water source.
This “if you’re not Hindu, you’re not Indian,” ideology has reached beyond cities into the countryside in remote villages. Under the governing rule of tribal leaders, Christian converts face the greatest risk of persecution.
Open Doors’ report shows that the degree of violence in a state inversely relates to the size of its Christian population. The fewer Christians a village has, making these believers more vulnerable, the more violent the persecution incidents. On a daily basis, Christians living in remote villages where the majority is Hindu are constantly under pressure to return to Hinduism.
Often, this pressure comes in the form of denial of basic survival needs, like water and food.
In East India in mineral-rich Jharkhand state, Christians were made to use a river, also used for sewerage, for their drinking water. In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, police reportedly threatened a woman with losing her government ration card because she was a Christian. In bordering state Chhattisgarh, 52 Christian families were denied rations in 2014. When they solicited help from district officials, they were attacked.
Education and other services provided by a community can also be weaponized. In September 2015, children receiving government education were banned from attending school because they did not attend Hindu religious classes at the school on Sundays. Three years later in Jharkhand, a Christian family attempting to bury their mother was denied burial space by Hindu extremists arguing that Christians should cremate.
Counting it all joy
Despite the rapid rise of violent persecution in India, the church in India is growing and standing strong in their faith. Believers continue to forgive, share the gospel, participate in a church, pray, and look to Jesus. In short, they’re living out James 1:2-8—counting it all joy when they face trials.
There’s Mohan, a 21-year-old farmer who lost his home, his farm—everything—when village leaders learned he and his mother had become Christians. Still, he forgives.
“The people who are against me, I have forgiven them and forgiving them and feel peace in my heart,” he says. “It’s worth it all to walk with Jesus.”
And there’s Arun and Neja—the only Christians in their village. When their village learned they had left the village faith, they cut them off from the well. Every day, Arjun had to journey more than a mile to another village to collect water. The couple left and have since returned to tell others about Jesus.
“When we are weak, we worship Him,” Arun shares. “When we are surrounded by problems, we worship God more. When God calls us to love our neighbor, He simply asks us to follow His footsteps.”
Mohan, Arun and Neja’s stories represent millions of our brothers and sisters in India who are living in the throes of violent persecution and in the hope of Christ.
But the church in India needs the worldwide Church to continue to stand strong. They need to know we hear them.
In India, Open Doors is working through partners on the ground to strengthen the church by providing aid such as Christian literature, Bibles, pastoral training, legal aid, relief and more. Your support reminds them they are not alone–that they are part of God’s worldwide family.
Top photo: representative image used for security reasons (Shutterstock.com).