Hindu Extremists Turning Up the Heat in India

Christians Facing New Wave of Attacks

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NEW DELHI, India, FEB. 22, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Hindu extremists continue to attack Christians in India, and their political influence reaches the highest level of government. A report in the Feb. 24 issue of Newsweek confirmed once more how politicians in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have opted to play the card of Hindu nationalism in order to gain popular support.



Far from being chastened by the fierce religious riots in Gujurat last year, the BJP "plans to flog both Islamic terrorism and the Pakistani threat in next year's elections," according to Newsweek. In fact, Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister, won re-election overwhelmingly last December after waging a campaign based on Hindu nationalism.

Hindu extremism is entrenched in the highest levels of the federal government, as the Italian missionary magazine, Mondo e Missione, made clear in its January issue. The minister in charge of privatization, industry and commerce, Arun Shourie, is one of the most outspoken critics of Christianity in general and the activities of the Catholic Church in particular.

In spite of having benefited from a Christian education, at St. Stephen's College in Delhi, in 1994 Shourie published a book, "Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas," in which he accused missionaries of stirring up agitators and fomenting secession. His book accused the Catholic Church of perpetuating the British domination of India and of being associated with imperialist powers.

He returned to the battle in 2000 with another book, "Harvesting Our Souls," which alleges that Christianity is based on mythology and inexact history. The first chapter is dedicated to an attempt to prove that the Australian evangelical missionary Graham Staines, burned alive with his two sons in Orissa in January 1999, did not limit his activities to looking after lepers. Staines, alleges Shourie, also engaged in missionary work. He also accuses Mother Teresa of the same fault.

A Jan. 28 government reshuffle elevated another Hindu hard-liner, Dilip Singh Judeo, the SAR News agency reported Feb. 18. The new Minister for Environment and Forests said he would continue his campaign of reconverting Christians to Hinduism despite his new duties.

He told the media: "The effort to bring back to [the] Hindu fold those who have embraced other faiths is associated with national pride." Like Shourie, Judeo is the product of a Christian education, at St. Xavier's College, Ranchi.

SAR News reported that some doubts have been raised over Judeo's reconversion claims. Arun Pannalal, the lay vice president of the Raipur Christian Council, noted that while Judeo claimed to have reconverted 600,000 Christians, official figures show that there only 400,000 Christians in the region concerned, Chhattisgarh.

Reconversions

Violence continues to plague Christians. The November bulletin of Compass Direct reported that during September and October a malicious anti-Christian campaign targeted missionary schools in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan state, in northern India. Staff members at the schools were accused of sodomy and severe corporal punishment.

Accompanying the accusations were rallies organized by nationalist Hindus, who demanded the closure of all missionary schools in the district. The militants also threatened to declare villagers outcasts if they did not withdraw their children from one of the schools concerned.

Simultaneously, radical Hindus in the area have gone on a reconversion drive, forcing people who converted to Christianity to "return home." In one case, the Rawat Mahasabha organization, backed by local politicians, organized the "reconversion" of 25 families who had adopted Christianity 30 years ago. Rasa Singh Rawat, a member of Parliament for the ruling BJP, presided over the ceremony.

Another blow in the anti-Christian campaign came with the law against forced conversion, approved in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Prohibition of Forcible Conversion law that took effect Oct. 31 imposes a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($1,034) and three years' imprisonment for anyone who coerces religious conversions. The penalties increase to four years in prison and 100,000 rupees if the conversion involves women, minors, members of backward castes or tribal peoples.

More than 6,000 educational institutions operated by churches remained closed and more than a million Christians participated in fasting and prayer on Oct. 24 to protest the new law. All the major Christian denominations -- the Catholic Church, the Church of South India and the Pentecostal denominations -- participated. Muslims and Dalits (untouchables) joined with the Christians in the one-day closure of educational institutions, demanding repeal of the law.

Bishop V. Devasahayam from the Madras Diocese of the Church of South India explained in an Oct. 24 interview with the news service Rediff.com the reasons behind the protests against the law.

He observed "that a man might come to me today and say he wants to convert. Two days later, he can go to the police station and say that he was forced [into conversion]. And the police can call not only me but everybody here and question them."

Bishop Devasahayam explained that Christians oppose forcible conversions but they also object to the wording of the law. "The words are such that they can be misinterpreted in any way," he said. "If I say that God will be displeased with you, then I can be prosecuted."

The political parties use religion as a means to mobilize the masses, affirmed the bishop. And in doing so, "they need an enemy. So they make us the enemy."

In fact, a number of false accusations have already been brought. In one case a Protestant pastor, Paul Manickam, was incorrectly accused of constructing a new church near his house without permission of the local authorities, according to the December bulletin of Compass Direct. The pastor was also -- incorrectly, according to Compass Direct -- accused of convincing residents of Vengala Nagar to convert to Christianity by promising them loans and basic amenities. In another incident, a student accused his school headmistress of trying to convert him to Christianity. Police investigators later concluded the complaint was baseless.

Midnight Mass disrupted

Last Christmas saw a renewal of the attacks against Christians. Police reported that more than 50 armed men stormed a church in Maliapota in the eastern state of West Bengal during midnight Mass, BBC reported Dec. 25. A priest and 14 others were injured in the attack. The assailants threw bombs and fired gunshots, but fled once police arrived and opened fire.

Then on Jan. 15 BBC reported that an American missionary, Joseph W. Cooper, was attacked by a group of Hindu extremists belonging to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group associated with the ruling BJP.

Two RSS activists were later arrested in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the attack took place. Police said Cooper was surrounded by an armed gang of 10 people near a convention site in the town of Kilimanoor.

"The gang attacked Cooper and others with swords, sticks and iron bars. Cooper sustained a deep cut in his right palm," a police spokesman said. A local pastor, his wife and two children and one other person was also injured.

A group of Indian bishops will soon make their quinquennial visit to the Holy See. No doubt, they and the Pope will have a lot to talk about.