INDIA – Christians as target during the lockdown

Frontline | Zaya Salam | August 18 2020

At least two reports by Christian organisations in India say that life has been precarious for the members of the minority community during the lockdowns imposed because of COVID. They were ostracised, threatened, intimidated, harassed, and in some cases fatally assaulted, the reports say. There were even instances of prayers being disrupted.

According to a report released in mid-July by the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), there were 135 cases of attack against Christian houses, churches and individuals until June this year. The EFI, founded in 1951, is an umbrella body of more than 65,000 churches across the country.

The incidents include lynching, social boycott and attempts to hinder worship. The report states: “A lynching, community ostracisation, concerted attempts to stop worship and gospel-sharing mark the 135 cases registered by the EFI in the first half of 2020.”

Says Vijayesh Lal, its general secretary: “We thought attacks on Christians would die down during the lockdown when businesses, markets, schools and colleges were closed. When nobody would venture out. But we were mistaken. The attacks on Christians increased during the lockdown. There were 33 attacks in March and 21 in June. There has been a further increase in July.”

A few days after the EFI released its report, Persecution Relief, an organisation that aims to protect the right to worship guaranteed by the Constitution, released its half-yearly report stating that hate crimes against Christians in India had risen by an alarming 40.87 per cent in spite of the nationwide lockdown. It records 293 cases of hate crimes against Christians, including five rapes and six murders, compared with 208 incidents last year.

According to Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief, the aim of the report is to draw attention to the “intensifying hostility against the Christian minority in India which has become progressively common. The cases chronicled in this report are only a fraction of the actual violence perpetuated and reported on the ground.”

According to Thomas, six murders, “influenced by religious bigotry”, were recorded in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha in the last three months. He says hate crimes have been committed against Christians in as many as 22 States in the country.

Uttar Pradesh fares worst

According to the Persecution Relief report, the maximum number of attacks against Christians (63) has been in Uttar Pradesh. That is, every fifth incident of attack on Christians in the country happened in Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu came second with 28 cases, including two hate crimes resulting in death, and the burning of a church structure. Chhattisgarh accounted for 22 cases, including a rape and the murder of a widow, and Jharkhand closely followed with 21 cases and one murder. Karnataka recorded 20 cases of attacks against Christians in the first half of 2020.

The report mentions 51 hate crimes of heinous nature against women and children, of which five were rape cases. There were 37 cases of boycott and ostracisation, rendering many Christian families homeless and forcing them to hide in jungles or stay at temporary shelters or safe houses. There were 130 cases of harassment, threats and intimidation and 80 incidents of physical assault, according to the Persecution Relief report.

“Over the past seven years, India has risen from No. 31 to No. 10 in the ‘Open Doors’ World Watch List, ranking just behind Iran in persecution severity. As of 2020, the USCIRF [the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom] has listed India as a CPC (Country of Particular Concern),” says Thomas. Open Doors, its website says, is an outreach to persecuted Christians in the most high-risk places. The World Watch List is an annual report prepared by its research team.

‘Impunity in administrative apparatus’

Condemning the targeted violence against the community, the EFI has sought the immediate arrest of the purveyors of hate violence. It turned down as false the allegations of coercive conversion, which is often cited as the reason for the violence.

The EFI report states: “The absolute sense of impunity generated in the administrative apparatus of India by the lockdown during the COVID pandemic, and the consequent absence of civil society on the streets, has aggravated the environment of hate and violence against Christians in major states and the National Capital Territory.”

Cases under-reported

The reports suggest that crimes against Christians are under-reported. The police are not willing to register complaints in some cases and when they do so, the incidents seldom get reported in the media, the reports say. “With the courts being virtually closed and the police failing to record all complaints, the access to justice is severely restricted,” the report says.

Significantly, the EFI did not regard the much-reported custodial death of Bennicks and Jayaraj in Tamil Nadu in June as a case of targeted killing of Christians as propagated in some quarters. The organisation also did not read communal motives into the murder of pastor Balwinder Singh in Ferozpur in Punjab in July end.

Incidentally, both reports claimed that the most number of attacks against Christians took place under Yogi Adityanath’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. The EFI report put the number of attacks against Christians in the State at 32. In early July, one Vikash was assaulted in Azamgarh at the residence of Sunita Maurya during a prayer service. Last year, Sunita Maurya was herself subjected to physical abuse, with a hot cup of tea poured on her allegedly at a police station.

“It is difficult to control attacks these days. The poison has reached very deep, right up to the grass-roots level. Until a few years back, there was only the Bajrang Dal whose members were often involved in such attacks. Now new bodies have mushroomed,” says Lal. Apparently, groups like Abhinav Bharat, Modi Sena, Amar Sena, and Dharm Sena have a crucial role in many of the recent incidents. Their volunteers go to almost every lane, every village, and speak about conversion to whip up an anti-minority atmosphere.

The atmosphere of hatred generated by these groups, says Lal, has resulted in attacks on not just Christian houses and churches but in the disruption of private prayers too. Says Lal: “The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has percolated to the grass-roots level. Until 1990 or so, the term conversion was not heard of in everyday life except maybe in the Sangh circles. But today, a mere mention of the word Christian evokes images of conversion. It is due to sustained indoctrination over a long period of time. The lockdown attacks are a manifestation of that indoctrination.”