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After Muslims, India's Christians the new target of right wing

Modi's Government Turns Blind Eye As Churches And Statues Vandalized

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Christian nuns marching for their right to worship on Dec. 22 in Bengaluru, India.   © Getty Images

NEW DELHI -- Christians in India are increasingly coming under attack by right-wing groups, with the number of violent incidents against them rising sharply in 2021 from a year ago.

On Christmas Day in Ambala in the northern state of Haryana, a statue of Christ was destroyed. Across the country on the same day, seven anti-Christian demonstrations and rallies took place, led by Hindu nationalist groups whose right-wing ideology is known as Hindutva. In two states at least, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh, the rallies were led by Hindu priests who called for Muslims and Christians to be killed.

Over the last year, the number of violent incidents against Christians jumped to 486, up from 279 in 2020, according to United Christian Forum, an India-based group. Sporadically, violence against Christians have flared up in New Delhi, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh since 2018, with perpetrators accusing their victims of forcefully converting Hindus.

"Fueled by religious nationalism, targeted attacks against Christians have escalated in both frequency and intensity in an alarming way and meet with a terrifying silence from the central government," Mervyn Thomas, founder president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide which advocates religious freedom, told Nikkei Asia.

Indeed, there is a sense that the government may be on the side of these nationalists and even stoking the unrest. Brijmohan Agrawal, a former minister of Chhattisgarh state and local leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, attended the December rally in the state.

Agrawal told Nikkei that a number of people living in the rural part of the state were being "lured" by promises of health care provision and education to convert to Christianity, which gives the Hindu priests reason to hold such anti-Christian rallies.

"Christian missionaries are trying to attack Hinduism by forcefully converting Hindus to Christianity, our fight is against these people... If Hinduism is attacked, we will fight back," Agrawal said.

"This conversion narrative is just a plain conspiracy," Arun Pannalal, president of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, said in a recent telephone interview with Nikkei. "They want to spread hatred against Christians, as they have done against Muslims."

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After the Christmas Day attacks, Agrawal said he did not support violence and had "no problem" with Christmas but he felt that Christians should celebrate it in a way that "doesn't cause disturbance to others," suggesting festivities should be held only in religious spaces. Agrawal also justified the outrage expressed by Hindus and defended calls by them to crack down on Christians.

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Homeless people lining up for food handouts by a portrait of Mother Teresa at the Kolkata headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity she founded.   © AP

The government has form in pressuring organizations it deems to hold different values to it. The Ministry of Home Affairs in early December blocked a charity founded by Mother Teresa from receiving international funding by refusing to renew its license to operate, citing India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

This refusal came just days after the charity faced a police investigation for "hurting religious sentiments of Hindus." The government eventually reneged on Jan. 7 and renewed the charity's license without giving a reason for its change of mind.

"The recent use of the [act] to target NGOs (nongovernment organizations), including Mother Teresa's charity, perpetuates this shameful pattern of intolerance and abuse by authorities," said Carolyn Nash, Asia advocacy director at Amnesty International. Amnesty's bank accounts in India were also frozen temporarily in 2020 by the government.

"This is another contemptible effort to silence anyone whose beliefs or politics are perceived as a threat to the power of the state," she added.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a writer and journalist who writes about Modi and his Hindutva supporters, said COVID has dealt the government a bad hand. "The BJP is extremely worried about the negative impact this could have on the Assembly (parliamentary) elections in the five states... in the next two months," he said, adding, "whenever the BJP is in trouble, it goes back to its most favored electoral tool, which is to create communal polarization and mobilize the Hindus behind it."

Mukhopadhyay also said that anti-Muslim sentiment is still being stoked but "we have suddenly seen a resurgence in the attacks on the Christians because it's an indication of the kind of desperation which is there in the rank and file of the BJP."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has called on the U.S. Department of State to declare India a country of concern because the government has been "engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations."

According to India's latest official census conducted in 2011, Christians make up a mere 2.3% of the population, Hindus 79.8% and Muslims 14.2%.

For now, Christians like Reena Edwards who went to attend The Church of Signs and Wonders in New Delhi live in fear. Her newly built church was vandalized and trashed on Nov. 28. "They entered with rods and hammers to destroy our church," Edwards said.