The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) has newly classified India as a “restricted nation” in its latest global prayer guide—a change from its earlier “hostile area” categorization—as persecution against Christians is “now driven by India’s national government,” says VOM.

VOM’s “hostile area” category identifies nations or large areas of nations where the government may attempt to provide protection, but the Christian population remains persecuted by family, friends, neighbors, or political groups because of their witness. Indian believers have largely faced this type of violence, including last year’s Manipur attacks, which killed more than 100.

In contrast, “restricted nation” describes countries where government-sanctioned circumstances or anti-Christian laws lead to the harassment of Christians or the loss of their civil liberties. It can also include government policies or practices preventing Christians from obtaining Bibles or other Christian literature. (Christians in restricted nations often also experience persecution from family, community members, and/or political groups.)

Although Indian Christians largely face persecution that reflects VOM’s “hostile area” categorization, the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a key player in recent years in driving public opinion against non-Hindu Indians.

“The rise of Hindutva ideology—and the open and enthusiastic embrace of this ideology by Modi and other government leaders—has had the effect of making India’s national government an overt persecutor of the church rather than a protector of religious minorities and religious freedom,” said VOM spokesperson Todd Nettleton.

“This emphasis—backed by the power of the federal government as well as multiple BJP-controlled state governments—has had a chilling effect on religious freedom, even without a formal change in the laws of the nation.”

CT reached out to six religious freedom advocates, two international and four Indian, to learn if this label helps or hinders outsiders in their understanding of the situation in India. Does the new classification bring any changes for the church in India, either good or bad? Does naming and shaming help the cause of Indian Christians?

Answers are arranged from those skeptical of the efficacy of the new designation to those who believe it is constructive. Additionally, CT asked VOM what they hoped would be achieved by recategorizing India.

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John Dayal, veteran human rights activist in India

The situation of Christians in India should shock everyone in the world, especially in the West, as also in South Korea and the Philippines, which have sizable Christian populations and are political and business partners of India.

The new “restricted nation” status assigned by VOM does not fully capture the complexity and severity of the situation in India. The unique nature of the threat faced by Christians in India from Hindutva ideology is distinct from threats faced in other parts of the world, such as Islamist elements, dictatorships, communism, or political movements associated with Buddhism.

The fact is that the highest political officers in the country are leading the marginalization of religious minorities. Laws are being enacted every day to harass the population, restrict religious practices, and shut down all evangelization. This is a very serious matter and mitigates not just against the Indian constitution but also the UN Charter.

Nothing really changes [with this new VOM designation] for the common Christian in the village or the small town. The Hindutva elements are not fazed. The international rebuke is faint and weak and is immediately muffled by their accolades for the Indian ruling group and especially for its leader.

A. C. Michael, national coordinator, United Christian Forum (UCF), India

Such labels are nothing new for our country. Whether we as a country are labeled a “restricted nation” or not, it is a well-known fact that our country is becoming a challenging place for Christians to practice their faith.

According to our reporting at UCF, incidents of violence against Christians in India have drastically increased since 2014, from 147 incidents to 720 incidents in 2023, which amounts to two Christians attacked every day for practicing their faith somewhere in the country.

Having said the above, one cannot deny that such labels do help in letting other nations know of the status of religious freedom of a country. I am of the view, however, that just stopping with these labels wouldn’t help much in improving religious freedom. More needs to be done, like sanctions against countries that curtail freedom of religion and imposing restrictions on business dealings with such countries.

Vijayesh Lal, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship of India

While such designations may initially draw attention to the challenges faced by Christian minorities in India, we must recognize the complexity of our situation. India is a vast and diverse country, where the experiences of Christians vary greatly depending on geographic location, socioeconomic status, and other factors. A blanket label risks oversimplifying our reality and overlooking the unique contexts in which we live and worship.

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Moreover, we must consider the response of the Indian government to such designations. Historically, these labels have not led to meaningful changes in government policies or actions toward religious minorities. Instead, they often serve as diplomatic points of contention rather than catalysts for positive reform.

In older days, this designation might have nudged the government to revisit certain policies and prompt India’s international partners to speak up more forcefully in defense of religious liberty. That heightened visibility could conceivably have led to positive reforms.

But we are living in a different context now, where the ruling dispensation continues to deny what is alleged about religious minorities in India. And the international community is too busy wooing India, so that human rights or religious freedoms are mentioned in passing, if they are even mentioned at all.

And while international attention is important, true change must come from within our communities. Indian churches and faith-based groups are not merely victims; we are actively working to protect our religious freedoms guaranteed by India’s constitution. Focusing solely on narratives of persecution overlooks the resilience and advocacy efforts of Indian Christians and the broader civil society.

Rather than relying solely on rhetoric, we need in-depth analysis rooted in local realities. This means amplifying the voices of Indian Christians and engaging in dialogue with our government and civil society to find solutions tailored to our specific contexts.

Shibu Thomas, founder, Persecution Relief, India

Categorizing India or any nation under a certain label based on the verified data of the challenges faced by the Christian community creates an awareness of the ground reality. This is useful in upholding each other in prayer, since we are all members of the same body, sharing each other’s suffering and pain.

But will the Indian church benefit in any way if the label is altered? No! Rather, we must acquire the maturity to accommodate it, while on the other hand, making all efforts to live in peace and harmony with all people. Jesus taught us to give to Caesar what belongs to him and give God what belongs to him.

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We ought to rather pray for our authorities so that we can live peacefully.

Instead of seeking help from outside, which will in no way be helpful but cause greater harm, we need to understand that persecution is a sign of the Lord’s Second Coming. Instead of looking for ways to combat it, we need to embrace it gracefully, forgiving, loving, and praying for our persecutors. Who knows, God has put them here to refine the church! Foreign organizations have their own agendas, which is not always beneficial to the church in India.

So, I appeal to all Indian Christians to come back to the biblical foundation to endure and to stay faithful till the end, following the example of Christ in suffering.

Wissam al-Saliby, director of the Geneva office of the World Evangelical Alliance

Labels and rankings are helpful for building general awareness, for mobilizing public opinion, and for inviting India’s government to change course and India’s allies to speak up in support of religious freedom.

But they cannot, and are not meant to, provide Christians with an accurate and nuanced picture of how the churches and Christian ministries are steadfast and faithful in the face of persecution, of the growth and impact of the church in society, of significant differences in freedom and persecution from one Indian state to another, and of indigenous advocacy for greater religious freedom. We should be wary of discourses that inadvertently portray churches as helpless victims in the face of persecution.

In addition, these categorizations do not help those who want to advocate on behalf of their Christian brothers and sisters, because advocacy requires factual reporting, legal analysis, and focused recommendations for legal and policy change.

In recent years, we have seen that regardless of who sits in the White House, the US’s relationship with India comes first. The theory of change that supposes that awareness and public opinion in Western nations will lead the governments of those nations to prioritize religious freedom in their foreign policy is not working.

I believe we need to prioritize support for Indian Christian voices speaking prophetically to Indian authorities in India and [to rally behind] churches in India building national multi-faith and multi-stakeholder movements in support of greater freedom for all. The indigenous voices must grow louder in parallel to international voices advocating for religious freedom.

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Knox Thames, former US state department official

While I’m unfamiliar with VOM’s labels, the trendline for religious freedom in India has been worrisome for years. I have argued for the US State Department to use its designation power to add India to the Special Watch List because of the consistent and growing number of religious freedom violations against Christians and also Muslims. Such a step by the United States could encourage the Modi government to pursue a different path, one that supports religious freedom and minority rights.

Designations such as these create advocacy opportunities. They force policymakers to consider inconvenient facts about India, allowing advocates to press for better policies that encourage Delhi to reform.

Todd Nettleton, VOM spokesperson, United States

VOM’s aim, with this change in status, is to accurately reflect the nature of persecution our Christian brothers and sisters in India are facing and to enable Christians in the free world to better understand and more knowledgeably pray for them.

It’s important to understand that this change in classification is not an effort toward change. Rather, it is a reflection of change that has already taken place in the persecution Indian Christians face. There may be those in government or leadership who see or reference this information, but VOM is not an advocacy organization and influencing governments or other leaders has never been our goal.

Rather, VOM’s goal is fellowship between members of the global body of Christ. VOM’s primary audience is followers of Jesus in free nations, and our goal is to enable them to better understand and more knowledgeably pray for persecuted Christians in more than 70 nations around the world—including India—where Christians regularly face persecution for the activity of their faith.