The Easter baptism video didn’t cause a stir when it first appeared online. It was shared by Christians at the Wesleyan church in the small village of Dandi in Gujarat, India, to celebrate the baptism of seven brothers and sisters in Christ. The ceremony and the video were both simple. The Christians rejoiced as they have since a woman named Ela Burman made the first profession of faith in Dandi more than 80 years ago.
Then, after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions eased, the video mysteriously started circulating again. This time, it came with a warning.
“This is a wakeup call to all Hindus,” the edited video said. “If we do not wake up and act now, the entire village will become Christian.”
The next day, the baptism video made headlines in local papers and the story was picked up by several TV stations. The day after that, police showed up and took the church’s pastor, Daniel Dandiwala, into custody.
“I think it was planned,” Dandiwala told CT.
Dandiwala hadn’t done anything illegal, so authorities had to release him. But that didn’t end the harassment. Local authorities seized all the church’s account books and files and, according to leaders at the Evangelical Fellowship of India, attempted to challenge the church’s long-established legal standing.
Then right-wing Hindu nationalist groups organized a march, gathering around 1,000 people to protest conversions. A temple was constructed right next to the church, opening its doors in January 2023. Hindu religious leaders seemed to start targeting the 80 young people who attended Wesleyan prayer meetings.
By late summer, the temple had convinced about a quarter of them to “revert” to Hinduism.
“They are engaging in a form of rivalry with the church,” said John Parmar, the current Dandi pastor. Some of the young people, he said, “have been deeply swayed by right-wing ideology and a few of them have even developed a negative sentiment toward the church.”
Christians in India have faced a rising tide of hostility, aggression, legal problems, and violence ever since Narendra Modi’s ascension to prime minister in 2014. Many in Modi’s political party promote “Hindutva,” or Hinduness, and see pluralism and secular democracy—where everyone has equal rights—as a threat to a Hindu nation.
The number of verified incidents against Christians has gone up more than 300 percent between 2015 and 2022, according to the United Christian Forum, and some experts think the group’s count of nearly 600 attacks last year is too conservative. The number might be close to twice that. The worst ones have left Christians dead, churches on fire, and thousands fleeing their homes.
Christians in the country are exhausted by accusations of illegal proselytization that nationalists make hoping to whip up Hindutva supporters. Yet many, like the steadfast Wesleyans in Dandi, are facing these challenging times with equanimity. Their trust in God is not shaken, they say, and their call as followers of Christ has not changed.
“Opposition and persecution have been promised to us in God’s Word,” Parmar told CT, “and this church has endured it for years.”
The Dandi church can remember past periods of intense ostracism—years before the current political climate made things difficult for Christians—and they recall that God was faithful.
The first missionaries arrived in the fishing village in 1913 and built a medical dispensary. They saw no conversions in the first 10 years. No conversions in the next 10. And then, after 24 years, a woman brought her infant son to them and asked them to heal him. Two days later, he was better, and Ela Burman placed her faith in Christ.
“Nobody knows if the missionaries treated the baby only with medicine or also prayed over him,” said Vamman Bawa Bari, an 86-year-old Wesleyan pastor. “But Mom was happy I was alive.”
By the time Bari was in his teens in the 1950s, seven young people had dedicated their lives to Christ. Around that time, the missionaries left and the village decided the small squad of converts was a problem and ostracized them. The young Christians were isolated completely: People wouldn’t talk to them, they weren’t allowed to share a meal with a relative, they couldn’t get water from the common tap, and shopkeepers wouldn’t sell to them.
“We go to the nearby villages where different communities live and buy our groceries, vegetables, fruits, and all necessities from there,” Bari recalled. “There were years when we walked from one village to the next every day, and the villagers with bullock carts would go past us but refuse to give us a ride.”
Those seven young people, however, refused to waver. They stayed strong in the faith, and the village could see there was something different about them. The intended effect of ostracism is to make people sad, depressed, and despairing, but the Christians were exuberant and full of joy.
“Despite ostracism, the gospel in the village spread,” said the former Dandi pastor Dandiwala, who is also the son of one of the original converts.
Sunday school was a big draw, and Dandiwala remembers that when he was a child in the 1980s, around 120 people showed up to youth group. Some of them were punished by their families but came anyway. Some would show up for cricket matches but then stay for worship services. About 75 confessed faith in Jesus.
The Christians were often forced to leave the village to find work. But they succeeded, establishing themselves and their families elsewhere, and their testimonies added to the prestige of the church.
“Children from the poor fishermen community are very successful today,” Dandiwala said. “All of them are in good positions in their offices and government establishments. Some are businessmen.”
The Wesleyans also established a tradition of evening meetings. They would worship, study the Bible, and pray together—every night. While the believers were technically ostracized, their lives were full of community and their hearts full of joy. Today, 42 of the village’s 225 households are Christian.
The attacks from their neighbors are upsetting. The surge of laws that criminalize evangelism is very concerning. Christians in Dandi, like Christians in other parts of the country, worry about the growing power of Hindu nationalism and the rise of politicians who see all non-Hindu faith as a threat.
But the believers in the village also know that for them, nothing has changed. God is still faithful. Hearts will still be warmed by the good news of Jesus Christ, and people will still confess and be baptized. And the mission of the Wesleyan church is still the same.
“We … will continue to love and serve God and the people he has placed around us,” Parmar said, “even if they do not accept us. That is the mandate and the way of Jesus.”
Surinder Kaur is CT’s South Asia editor. She lives in India and reported this story from the village of Dandi.
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