India's Christians Face New Century with Confidence

Saturday, June 10, 2000

Violence Against the Church Strengthens Commitment to Evangelize

by Michael Fischer

More than a year after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Timothy and Phillip, were brutally murdered in Orissa state, Christians in India continue to be harassed and persecuted. And according to church leaders, the Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu fundamentalist groups) sponsors much of it in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. These states have become the laboratory of "Hindutva" (cultural nationalism).

For a time there was a lull in attacks against Christians after the international community sent letters to the Indian government expressing concern. But in recent months, the attacks have resumed and so has the propaganda against Christians.

Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, says violence against Christians is on the increase but is of a different nature now than a year ago. Most attacks are timed to coincide with Christian festivals. And despite lack of proof, one of the favorite themes the Sangh Parivar has adopted is that Christians are forcibly converting people.


The propaganda war first began soon after Staines and his sons were killed in January 1999. The spin-doctors of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) launched a powerful campaign at home and abroad. They spent millions of rupees, often using official government machinery to spread rumors about Christianity and hoped to stir hatred against Christians. Buoyed by the success of the campaign in some areas, the RSS decided to increase the rhetoric and target Christian leaders, particularly those who exposed them to the media.

It began with Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) spokesman Venkaiah Naidu, who accused John Dayal, national secretary of the All India Catholic Union (AICU), of "using the cover of a religious organization to carry on his strident tirade against the BJP and the government."

Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi on May 4, Naidu told Dayal to cease his "political" activities even as two attacks were reported against Christians. It was a deliberate and cynical attempt to single out Dayal and divide and weaken the resolve of Christians. Dayal started voicing the concerns of the Christian community in 1997 and regularly exposed the systematic hate campaign against Christians by Hindu fundamentalists.

But Christians were quick to support Dayal. In a statement issued on May 5, the All India Christian Council said, "The personal attack on John Dayal reveals attempts by authorities to stifle the voice of the Christian community and their well-known habit of curbing any dissent or independent voice speaking out on human rights issues."

Catholic Archbishop of Delhi Alan de Lastic added, "It was wrong of Naidu to single out and attack Dayal and insinuate political motives to his human rights activities."


Naidu also tried to side-step reports of anti-Christian violence over the Easter period. He quoted a report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) saying attacks against Christians in Kosi, Mathura and Agra and elsewhere should not be seen as communal attacks. In each of these attacks Christians were beaten, robbed and abused.

Earlier in May, the RSS accused Christian members of Parliament (MPs) and church leaders of carrying out "anti-Sangh Parivar propaganda" and "making an issue out of non-existent events." The reference was to attacks against Christians in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

In an open letter to all MPs, Rajendra Chaddha of the intellectual wing of the RSS, "Prajna Pravah," urged Christian organizations to verify facts before making public accusations against the RSS. "They are in the habit of making an issue out of a non-existent event," he said. "Even a theft in a Christian house these days is claimed to be part of an anti-Christian drive."

Chaddha then went on the offensive. He added that the church and its leaders were "using all means, fair and foul, to sell their gospel and spread falsehood about India and Hindus." The letter said church leaders should look into church propaganda and literature, which is often derogatory to non-Christians to the point of being offensive. The letter was issued after the newly formed Christian MPs Forum expressed concern over the recent attacks on Christians and other minorities and the distribution of hate literature by Hindu organizations.


Last year, a group of Dalits (lower caste) in Haryana decided to become Christians on their own accord and contacted a Christian church. The Dalits said they wanted to become Christians because high-caste Hindus oppressed them. But when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, two militant Hindu groups, heard about it, they threatened the Dalits and even the church with dire consequences.

And the intimidation continues. In May, a Pentecostal church assembly hall at Madla in Madhya Pradesh was seized by the Bajrang Dal and converted into a Hindu temple. The Bajrang Dal also forced Christians to leave their village. A court in Madla issued an arrest warrant to detain members of the Bajrang Dal, but so far no one has been arrested.

The Sangh Parivar seems to be in no mood to stop now. On May 28, the National Chief of the Bajrang Dal, Surendra Jain, called for a second "Quit India Movement," something that the organization has done in the past, to "drive away" Christian missionaries. He said Christians were "defaming" Hinduism, dividing the country and carrying out large-scale conversions of Hindus. Jain warned that the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Federation) and the RSS would "never allow this to happen." Yet a look at official statistics proves that the Christian population has stayed at 2.3 percent of the population.

There have also been attempts by the Posts and Telegraph Department to cancel special rates for scores of Christian magazines and newspapers in many states. An article in the Deccan Chronicle newspaper said the BJP government had revised history textbooks describing Christians, Muslims and Parsees as foreigners, even though they have lived in India for centuries and are as Indian as Hindus.


So what have these trials and all this propaganda done to Christians? Bishop Karam Masih of the Church of North India says that despite all odds, the church is growing in India and that the church will continue to serve the poor in the country.

Howell adds that the church has gone through a period of trial and come out stronger and has revived. "I believe the church has spent time in introspection looking at its own lifestyle and spiritual life to see that they are culturally sensitive. These are positive developments," he says.

Last year the Sangh Parivar tried to put pressure on the church to backtrack on its course of evangelization and demanded an apology from the pope during his visit to India. Instead, the pope called on the faithful the use the next millennium to preach the gospel in Asia.

"I think that has been a very helpful statement made by the pope," Howell said. "It not only encouraged the Catholic Church but the evangelical church in India."

Church leaders said it sent a clear message to the Sangh Parivar that the church would not back down from its evangelization activities, including service to the poor. Christians have also been able to take a stand on evangelization, particularly after the visit of Pope John Paul II in November 1999. Howell says there are no longer fence sitters in India as far as the church is concerned.

"You are either for evangelization or against it," Howell said.

At the heart of this movement is the commitment of Christians. Last year, 150 Christian leaders met in New Delhi and made a commitment to the uniqueness of Christ and loyalty to the Scriptures. John Gilman of Dayspring International says this means there is a new field for ministry. "It's a spiritual movement -- it's what we would classically describe as a great move of the Holy Spirit sweeping the nation of India as the people of God embrace their communities and their states and their nation."

Although difficulties remain, the church in India seems encouraged as it enters the new millennium.

"The One who created the universe is also our heavenly Father, and He is the One who rules and overrules," Howell said. "The destiny of humanity is in His hands, and since we follow Him, we move into the new century with courage and confidence."

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.