Threats to the season of Peace and Goodwill
AIM Editorial December 2021
India, we hope, will not miss out on the Spirit of Christmas. It is the season of goodwill on earth, among men, women, and children. It is to celebrate the birth and ministry of one who taught us not to make a difference between Jew and Gentile, between women and men. And between those who thought of themselves to have been born in families of priests and of kings, and the humbler ones whose lot it was to labour as carpenter and cobbler, fisherman and bread-maker, and the men who stood day and night collecting toll from people on the highway.
And yet, as Christmas approached, the Church in India felt the pressure of hate-mongers, some in positions close to the king’s court, and others who thought because they had mighty arms, it was their right to persecute the weak and the meek, and the different.
Those who governed sent out their minions to survey churches, halls of worship and homes where neighbours collected to hear the Word of God. Self-appointed private armies set forth looking for newly baptised faithful and their pastors, as others lobbied with the government to outlaw the entire freedom to choose one’s faith. Over the last seven decades, nine states have in fact made it all but impossible to lawfully follow the faith of their choice. The southern state of Karnataka, known for its climate and its cutting-edge technology, threatens to become the tenth state in a nation or 30 provinces to bring law abridging the freedom of religion.
The community is not in panic. Its strong faith is surety of that. But it is apprehensive. Over the years, the Christmas season has seen sporadic incidents of violence. They remember that carollers singing songs heralding the birth of baby Jesus were waylaid and beaten, and then rounded up and taken to prison. It may perhaps not come to that. But there have been beatings and assaults, on churches and on pastors. In one case in the state of Karnataka, it was the women in the church who stood up to the goons, bravely as the women of the Old Testament.
According to media reports, the Commissioner of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Mr. Govindram Churendra, has issued controversial guidelines to the subordinate district magistrates which translates as: “Make a list of all villages, families and persons from other communities who might be lured by Christians to convert.” And “Bring back people, who have converted to Christianity, to the original community through brotherhood and goodwill,” and “Initiate campaigns for people who have not yet converted so that they continue to believe in their traditions, gods and goddesses and rituals,” (translated from a Hindi media article quoting the guidelines).
These guidelines come after Mr. Sunil Sharma, the Superintendent of Police of the Sukma district in the same state, ordered surveillance of Christian missionaries in the heavily forested tribal areas in July this year.
According to media reports, the official letter that was issued said, “The Christian missionaries and the tribal Christians are routinely venturing in internal areas of the district and persuading the non-Christian tribals to get converted by enticing and offering them allurement. Owing to this, the situation resulting into a conflict between the local tribals and those converted (to Christianity) can’t be ruled out.”
This clearly exhibits a bias in the government apparatus against one community and makes it clear that an agenda is being pushed.
The adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh too remains tense after the Sub Divisional Officer (Revenue) of Thandla and Meghnagar issued orders to prohibit Christian assemblies and weekly worship service that had no permission from the district magistrate on the allegation that conversions take place. The idea that Churches must take permission from the District Magistrate to meet every week for worship is a direct affront on the values of the constitution.
The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh added to the growing list of concerns by recently directing various Collectors, Commissioners, and Inspector General of Police to identify non-government organisations in the state that are getting foreign funding and are breaking society and indulging in conversion. Without naming any organisation in particular, the Chief Minister said that there is no place for any NGO in the state that engages in religious conversions. Since he did not use the word forcible or fraudulent, does the Chief Minister mean that conversions per se are illegal? That is not what the constitution tells us.
In Karnataka in south India, news of a proposal to survey “official as well as unofficial churches and bible societies aimed at preventing alleged religious conversions” surfaced in the first half of the month of October. The proposal was backed by Mr. Goolihatti Shekar, BJP legislator from Hosadurga and the Acting Chairman of the Committee on the Welfare of Backward Classes and Minorities. Mr. Shekhar claimed that even his mother had been converted. However, on 28th October it was reported that the state government put a hold on the survey.
Following this the Karnataka government ordered the Department of Minorities Welfare to provide information about people who have converted to another religion in the past 25 years while the Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai made known his plan to bring an anti-conversion law during the winter session of the Karnataka legislative assembly to be held at the Suvarna Vidhan Soudha Belagavi from 13th December 2021. He confirmed to news reporters that the draft law will be influenced by similar laws in other states particularly Uttar Pradesh.
Recommendations were issued to the Department of Minorities Welfare that they should gather information about religious conversions in coordination with the Police Department, Revenue Department, Social Welfare Department, district commissioners, and chief executive officers. The information was to be submitted within 30 days.
Media outlets have also reported that on 16th October, Karnataka’s Intelligence Department issued an order to top police and intelligence officials to gather information about “authorised and unauthorised” churches in Karnataka.
In the Hosdurga taluk, the Tehsildar had issued orders on 4th October asking revenue officials to conduct a “door-to-door” inspection to find “Hindus who have converted to Christianity.” This exercise was sanctioned by the District Collector of Chitradurga and seems to have been triggered by “WhatsApp and Facebook messages”, and “concerns raised” by the BJP sitting MLA in the constituency, Goolihatti Shekhar. The order states that the MLA “believes Christian missionaries throughout the taluk are luring Hindus and converting them to Christianity”.
All this points to a massive intelligence gathering on the Christian community in the state just before tabling the anti-conversion bill.
Targeted hate almost invariably leads to violence. The state has seen multiple attacks in the past few days targeting worship services and Christians in general.
Persecution of this nature happens across India. Attacks on Christians have been increasing particularly in the poll bound state of Uttar Pradesh which clearly leads the tally in the number of attacks against the Christian community this year as well.
Pastors and lay Christian leaders are being targeted and implicated under sections of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act 2021 in a major way and many of them have to spend weeks in jail before they can be bailed out.
Evangelical Fellowship of India has written to the Government of India and the various State Governments and appealed to them to provide security to the community so that Christmas remains peaceful for all.
But more needs to be done to highlight the way in which the community seems to be at the receiving end of the hatred that comes from divisive ideologies and political polarization. Governments in the states and at the Centre must protect not just the minorities but the Constitution of the country which guarantees equality under law, and the freedom to profess, practice and propagate the faith of one’s choice
With Civil Society, the church is reminding political groups, state apparatus and the law-and-order system what the Prime Minister and the Supreme Court of India have assured our countrymen – religious freedom for everyone.
At the same time, a campaign to educate the masses so that disinformation and propaganda against the Church can be countered is a must. Christian leaders at all levels must be trained in their rights and in the laws of the land, so that they can respond positively to any attacks and propaganda.
For this, efforts towards building Christian unity must be redoubled. The community must also engage with civil society, especially at the grassroots and speak for others when their rights are violated.
As Church in India, our hope remains in Christ, who alone builds the Church. We must take solace in our knowledge that Jesus takes the attacks against His Body personally. The important thing is to persevere with Him and respond in ways that will bring glory to Him.
Rejoicing in our faith, we wish each other a Merry Christmas. Peace and Goodwill among women and men of our country, India.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal