Christmas Season Attacks Worry Christians in India

by | Dec 22, 2009 | Charisma Archive

hristmas Season Attacks Worry Christians in India

With at least two violent
attacks and alleged “reconversion” of more than 1,700 Christians in the week leading
up to Christmas, a sense of fear is growing among India’s minority Christian
community.

On Sunday,
Hindu extremists attacked a church during worship in western Maharashtra state’s
Sindhudurg district and a Christmas exhibition in Gwalior city in central Madhya
Pradesh state. The following day, extremists claimed having converted over 1,700
tribal (aboriginal) Christians “back” to Hinduism in western Gujarat
state.

“Christmas is a
favorite time for violence against Christians in India, as it intimidates the
Christian community at large,” said Dr. John Dayal, member of the government’s
National Integration Council, headed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh.

Dayal pointed out that
the first mass attack on Christians in India took place in Gujarat’s Dangs
district during Christmas in 1998, setting the stage for future attacks through
the season.

“Then Indian Prime
Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee [of the Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP] went to see the damage [in
Dangs], but instead of commiserating with the victims, he called for a national
debate on conversions,” Dayal said. “That political philosophy has been behind
the festive season attacks on the Christian community.”

The Rev. Anand
Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Madhya Pradesh said the attacks
around Christmas could be a reaction to increased and favorable coverage of
Christians and churches in newspapers and television channels during the
festival season.

“Rightwing extremists
cannot tolerate this, and they cannot stop it either,” he said. “So, in
frustration, they launch attacks.”

On Christmas Eve of
2007, eastern Orissa’s Kandhamal district witnessed a massive spate of
anti-Christian attacks that killed at least four Christians and burned 730
houses and 95 churches.

Arson
in Madhya Pradesh

The assailants
in the Dec. 20 attack in Madhya Pradesh state have been identified as members of
the extreme rightwing outfit

Bajrang Dal
. Muttungal said members of the Hindu
extremist group shouted Hindu slogans and burned artwork depicting biblical
scenes at an annual Christmas fair organized by the Catholic Church in Gwalior
city.

The mayor of Gwalior
had inaugurated the two-day fair on Saturday (Dec. 19), and it was organized
with due permission from authorities, he said.

“The incident has
spread panic among Christians in the state,” reported
Indian Catholic, a news portal run by the Catholic
Church in India.

The portal quoted
Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal as saying that the attack “is a matter of
serious concern for Christians, especially when we are preparing to celebrate
Christmas.”

Three of the
attackers were arrested, and two of them were sent to judicial custody by a
local court.

Also on Sunday, around 60 men barged into the New Life Fellowship (NLF) church in Kankauli
area in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district and beat the pastor, his wife and a
few other Christians, according to NLF Pastor Atul Bhore. The church meets at
the privately owned Anant Hotel in Kankauli.

“The attackers, all
men, accused us of converting Hindus,” the 37-year-old pastor told Compass.
“Then they beat us, including my wife, with their hands and legs. My back is
still in pain.”

The attackers were
allegedly led by a local leader of the Hindu extremist
Shiv
Sena
party,
identified as Vaibhav Naik. Also taking a lead role in the attack was a local
leader of the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rupesh
Nagrekar.

The NCP is part of the
ruling state coalition with the Congress Party. As policy, both parties renounce
the Hindu nationalist ideology of the opposition
Shiv
Sena
party and its
ally the BJP. But involvement of local leaders of the two “secular” parties is
not uncommon in Maharashtra.

An official from the
Kankauli police station said police were on the lookout for the attackers, and
that they would be arrested soon.

A Christian from the
NLF church said police were initially reluctant to take action against the
attackers.

“The police warned us
against ‘conversions,’ as if the allegations made against us were true,” the
Christian said. “Only after Dr. Abraham Mathai from the Maharashtra State
Minorities Commission intervened did the police show interest in prosecuting the
attackers.”

‘Reconversions’ in Gujarat

Following these
two attacks, yesterday (Dec. 21) Hindu extremist group
Shree
Sampraday

Seva Samiti
(Service Committee of the Hindu
sect

Shree Sampraday
) claimed to have “reconverted” 1,747
people to Hinduism in Gujarat state’s Surat city, reported
The
Times of India
newspaper.

“The camp to reconvert
tribals, who had embraced Christianity, was held in the city for the first time,
and nearly 5,000 people from Maharashtra and Gujarat participated in the
ceremony,” the newspaper reported.

About 10 Hindu priests
chanted mantras at a fire ritual, around which sat those willing to “get back”
to Hinduism, it stated, adding that participants were given a meditation word
and sacred thread to mark their “reconversion.”

“We organized the event
in Surat to promote Hinduism in urban areas,” one of the organizers, Yashwant
More, told the newspaper. “We have a series of events planned in the near future
to hold such reconversion camps in urban areas of Gujarat. In January, events
are planned in Vadodara and Silvassa.”

Gujarat has an
anti-conversion law, known as the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which
mandates all those seeking to convert, as well as clergy involved in any
“conversion ceremony,” to seek prior permission from district authorities. No
permission was sought for the event, noted the newspaper.

Christians complain
that anti-conversion laws, in force in four other states including Madhya
Pradesh, have been enacted only to harass Christians and are rarely used against
Hindu nationalist groups.

Sociologists say that
India’s tribal peoples, who have long practiced their own ethnic faiths, are not
Hindus. Hindu nationalists are active mainly in tribal regions to “Hinduize”
local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths.

Many reports of
“reconversions,” however, have been found to be false. In 2007, Hindi-language
daily

Punjab Kesari
reported that four Christian families
in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to
Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed
that none of the members of those families had ever converted to
Christianity.

More than 80 percent of
India’s 1.1 billion people are Hindus; Christians make up a meager 2.3 percent
of the population.

Opposition and attacks
will not dampen the spirit of Christmas, said Dayal.

“The birth of Christ is
a harbinger of salvation, and this salvific promise goads us on to celebrate
Christmas without fear,” he said. “We will not be cowed, or scared, or
intimidated into retracting from our faith and from celebrating the birth of the
Messiah.”

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