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Anti-Christian Attacks Surge as Hindu Nationalism Grows

Battling accusations of forced conversions, the church faces escalating threats, false arrests, and assaults on their institutions, reports the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
Anti-Christian Attacks Surge as Hindu Nationalism Grows
Image: Photos courtesy EFI / Edits by CT

The number of violent anti-Christian incidents in India jumped to 601 in 2023 compared to 413 the previous year, according to a new report from the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission (EFI-RLC).

“Despite constitutional protections and India’s long-standing tradition of religious diversity, the rise of divisive rhetoric and inflammatory language, often condoned or inadequately addressed by official channels, has emboldened sections of society to perpetrate acts of violence and discrimination against religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims,” said Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of EFI.

India is home to about 28 million Christians, or about two percent of the country’s population of 1.4 billion. The majority of attacks on Christians were categorized as threats and harassment (201) followed by 146 instances of false accusations and subsequent arrests.

EFI-RLC’s report highlights several troubling trends, including regional hotspots, primarily concentrated in the northern part of the culture, where violence against Christians is particularly severe. Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and a significant political battleground, recorded the highest number of incidents at 275. The state also leads in arrests of pastors and believers, often on allegations of forced conversions, despite lacking substantial evidence.

Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, is another hotbed of targeted violence against tribal Christians. It witnessed 132 incidents of coordinated attacks in addition to several Ghar Wapsi (“returning home” programs of reconversion to Hinduism or ancestral faith) and ostracism incidents that are not recorded.

Haryana, a landlocked state in northern India where Christians make up .02 percent of the population of 25 million, had 44 cases, indicating a widespread pattern of targeted violence against the Christian community across various regions of India.

The report follows and reinforces the narrative of the 2024 World Watch List released earlier this year by Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors, which ranks India at number 11, noting the sustained rise of Hindu nationalism:

Any Christian who does convert from Hinduism is most likely to come under intense pressure or even violence. They can face constant pressure to renounce their new faith, face job loss/discrimination, endure physical assaults, and even be murdered. Church leaders are also in danger in many parts of India: extremists target them (along with their families) to create fear and chaos in the Christian community.

The list also notes that compared to the 2023 report, attacks on Christian homes doubled to 180, Christian fatalities increased ninefold to 160, and attacks on churches and Christian schools rose from 67 to 2,228. Many of these increases were due to last May’s deadly attacks in Manipur.

These reports come weeks after the United Christian Forum (UCF) announced that it had documented 161 incidents of violence against Christians between January 1 to March 15 of this year. UCF states that the data was collected by its toll-free helpline and, as per information available, 161 Christians, including 122 pastors, have been arrested on allegations of forced religious conversions despite lack of evidence.

False Accusations and Contentious Conversions

Hindu nationalists have frequently and falsely accused Christians of forced conversion under duress and have used these claims as a pretext for violence. Though activists have debunked this as an unfounded claim, these charges continue to fuel violence and discrimination against Christians, particularly against those of vulnerable groups like Dalits, Adivasis, and women.

“The bogey of conversion is a very convenient one and is largely misused to target the Christian community in states where these laws are in operation, and in states where these laws do not exist, they are deemed to be in operation, causing the same harassment,” said Lal.

The conversion of people belonging to lower castes, including Dalits, away from Hinduism—a traditionally non-proselytizing religion—to proselytizing religions, especially Christianity, has been a contentious political issue in India. About half of Indians support legal bans on religious conversions, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report.

As of today, 10 of India’s 28 states have anticonversion laws in place: Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, and Haryana. All of these are Hindu-majority states, and 6 out of the 10 are governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The state of Arunachal Pradesh drafted but never enacted such a law, while Rajasthan’s attempts in 2006 and 2008 did not get final approval. Tamil Nadu passed an anticonversion law in 2002, but it was revoked after protests.

Even when states lack anticonversion laws, there are brutal consequences for those alleged to have proselytized Hindus, tribals, or those of any other faith. EFI-RLC noted a story of one pastor and others who were brutally attacked during a 2023 prayer gathering in the state of Maharashtra after extremists accused them of religious conversion activities. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country, where Christian institutions and individuals have faced violent assaults and harassment.

The report highlights an incident that took place in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in March 2023, when a group of Hindu extremists barged into a church during a service, locking 250 Christians inside. They then interrogated them about conversions, tearing up Bibles and assaulting 10 people.

‘The Potential to Incite’

Beyond direct violence, the report highlights broader structural changes that threaten the rights and well-being of religious minorities, including the presence of Hindutva ideology in public education. EFI-RLC fears “infiltration and manipulation by extreme right-wing political entities aligned with the current regime’s preferences.”

EFI-RLC also noted that BJP legislators have begun to make good on a long-standing campaign promise to introduce a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which seeks to have one law determine matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption in the state, instead of different laws for different religious communities.

Though the constitution states that the government should work toward implementing a UCC across the country, “Such a code could potentially undermine the legal protections and affirmative action measures provided to these minorities under the Indian constitution,” according to the report. (This change was recently introduced in the state of Uttarakhand.)

The report also notes the intentions of other states like Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Chhattisgarh to enact similar laws in 2024. Though it acknowledges that the details of these laws remain unclear, such legislation, it claims, could impede the rights of Christians to freely profess, practice, and propagate their faith, which are guaranteed by the constitution.

“These laws and statements have the potential to incite non-state actors and vigilante groups to intimidate and assault religious minorities, worsening tensions and threatening social harmony,” the report elaborates.

Upcoming Elections

India’s seven-phase national elections will kick off on April 19 and conclude on June 4. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party won the previous two elections in 2014 and 2019. They are hoping to win a third consecutive election and current polls suggest they are on track to win nearly 70 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower parliamentary chamber.

Earlier this month, the leader of INDIA (the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), a coalition of 26 parties challenging the BJP, was jailed. Rahul Gandhi, a member of parliament for the Indian National Congress, the largest opposition party, and the grandson of India’s third prime minister Indra Gandhi, was sentenced to two years in jail in a defamation case related to remarks he made about people with the last name Modi.

Concerned over the policies and actions of the BJP’s national leadership, EFI has appealed to the Indian government and state administrations to protect religious minorities and uphold the rule of law, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh.

“As Christians, we pray for our nation, our leaders, and fellow citizens. No one should be targeted or persecuted because of their faith. Normalization of hatred will only take us backward and, in the end, harm everybody,” said Lal. “Our constitutional values are beautiful and worth pursuing, and we pray that these values of justice, equality, liberty, and fraternity will be true in the life of every Indian. Only then can we be a united and resilient nation.”

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