This is an article from the October-December 1999 issue: Oh, India

Attacks on Christians Are Increasing in India

Attacks on Christians Are Increasing in India

This article on recent violence in India was published by The New York Times before the world was aware of the Staines tragic death that very day.

January 23, 1999 Jarsol, India

In this hamlet nestled in the teak forests of western India, on a recent starry night, Sitaram Devjija says he saw something that froze him in terror. A mob of raging machete-wielding Hindu fundamentalists crested the hill above his mud hut and swarmed over the rustic Christian prayer hall where he worships.

Shouting "Awaken, Hindus; run away Christians," they smashed the red-tiled roof, pulled down the dung-caked walls of bamboo matting, set fire to a plain wooden table bearing the Bible and a trumpet, then rushed down the hill and beat him and four others with sticks and their fists.

The demolition of the prayer hall was one of dozens of attacks on Christian churches, schools and individuals that have taken place across the country in the past year, more than half of them here in the state of Gujarat.

India has a long history of deadly clashes between its dominant Hindu majority and its sizable Muslim minority, but in the past year there have been more attacks on Christians who make up only 2.3 percent of the nation's 960 million people and less than 1 percent of Gujarat's more than 40 million than at any other time in India's half century of independence.

The number of attacks on Christians reported to police rose to 86 last year from 24 in 1997 and seven in 1996, according to the Indian Home Ministry. Researchers for a Christian group put the number of attacks last year at more than 120.

While no one has been killed, the aggressive hostility to Christians has highlighted the way religion and politics can become dangerously entangled here.

Organizers of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, an alliance of churches that banded together in response to the violence, say it is no coincidence that the rise in attacks on Christians has occurred at a time when Hindu nationalists long suspicious of Christianity as a religion of foreign origin have come to power.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party now governs alone or as part of a coalition at both the national level and in the states where, according to the Christians' research, most of the attacks have occurred: Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharastra.

The party's leaders deny any role in the attacks and say they have acted to restore harmony. After his visit to the district earlier this month, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said attacks on minorities should stop, but he also called for a national debate about religious conversions.

Other more-militant Hindu nationalists are calling for a legal ban on all religious conversions in India. They have accused Christians of using foreign backing to undermine the country's Hindu civilization and to lure people to convert from Hinduism with bribes and free education.

They also say that missionaries have stepped up efforts to convert Hindus in the year since Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Catholic, became head of the opposition Congress Party a charge that both the party and the Christians say is false and meant to sow religious discord in a bid to win Hindu votes for the Hindu nationalists.

The Congress Party, which trounced the Hindu nationalists in recent state electionslargely over the soaring price of onions and other vegetablessays that it is the Hindu nationalists who are betraying Hinduism. India's majority religion is an eclectic, all-embracing faith that tolerates all believers, Congress leaders say.

Ethnic Hatred Burns in the Wilderness
The latest outburst of hatred has occurred in the isolated wilderness of the scantily- populated Dangs district of Gujarat, a place of pristine, mountainous beauty traced by crystalline rivers.

Almost all the 170,000 inhabitants of Dangs are from the indigenous Adivasis people. Many still worship their traditional deities, the cobra and the tiger, in remote villages often lacking electricity, running water and telephones. Large numbers have added the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, to their pantheon. Perhaps 15 percent of these people have become followers of Jesus Christ.

John and Florence Pittenger, American Protestant missionaries with the Church of the Brethren, were the first outsiders to come to Dangs. They arrived in Ahwa, capital of Dangs, in 1904. The church history describes Mrs. Pittenger confronting a tiger at the edge of the forest and the couple crossing monsoon-swollen rivers to reach villages.

Succeeding generations of missionaries have brought schools and medical clinics to the area. It is health care above all that has drawn local people to Christianity. The missionaries now are no longer foreigners, but Indians, mostly from the southern states of Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Govind Sindhu said three of her children died of illnesses in infancy and four others have survived with the prayers of a Christian pastor and the medical care they have received at a Christian clinic. It was this aid to her children that brought her into the Christian fold, she said.

Mrs. Sindhu said she was among those who helped douse a fire set to a prayer hall in her village of Dudha on the night of Jan. 10, just hours after Prime Minister Vajpayee had completed his visit to Dangs.

"We saw the flames," said Mrs. Sindhu, who lives behind the small church. "Immediately we came and threw water on the fire."

Vajpayee, the moderate face of the Hindu nationalist cause and a man who has stood up for secularism within his party, sent out more ambiguous signals in Dangs. While here, he called for a national debate on conversions a call that made Christians feel even more insecure.

Officials in his government have since said that the prime minister meant only that Hindus and Christians should have a "dialogue" about the contentious issue and never contemplated introducing any new legal restrictions on conversions.

In the past year, there have been scattered attacks on Christians in Dangs, as well as two or three cases of Christians disturbing Hindu places of worship, one of them last June in Jarsol, the village where Devjija's prayer hall was recently attacked. In the Jarsol case, police charged several Christians with removing statues of tribal deities from a small makeshift place of worship.

Then, between Dec. 25 and Jan. 11, there was a concentrated series of attacks in Dangs. Police registered 25 complaints of attacks on Christians and three of attacks on Hindus. Police arrested 43 Hindus and 125 Christians. There are now state police officers guarding all 168 Christian places of worship in the district.

Violence Intensifies on Christmas Day
The real trouble began on Christmas Day. The district administration allowed a militant Hindu group, the Hindu Awakening Front, to hold a rally near a Christian church in Ahwa permission that the prime minister later described as a serious mistake. Leaflets distributed before the rally called on Hindus to attend with the aim of halting further conversions.

"The conspiracy of converting gullible tribals by giving money, goods and black magic and also through threats is unearthed now," it said.

As the protesters marched through town on Christmas, Christians say they heard them chanting, "Christians are thieves; Christians get out."

Each side accuses the other of casting the first stone. The rally turned into a riot. Police say it is not clear who started the violence.

"As usual in India, nothing is exactly the truth," said Manoj Sashidhar, the superintendent of state police in Dangs. "There are shades of gray. You don't have all angels on one side."

That night, four Christian prayer halls and two Christian schools were attacked. Sister Carmen Borges, a Roman Catholic nun from Goa, said she watched a mob of more than 100 young men, wearing scarves of saffron, the color of Hinduism, heave rocks through the windows of a study hall in the Catholic school she runs in Ahwa. It is attended by 840 children, most of them non-Christians.

"Till today, no Hindus bothered about the Adivasis," Sister Borges said. "It is we missionaries who came here to bring them up through education."

That same night, Fathers Ozie Ferrao and M.V. Anthony were eating dinner at the Jesuit school they manage when they heard a whistle blow and then the sound of stones breaking the tiles on the roof. The school educates 225 children, 30 of them Christian. The priests went outside to talk to the attackers.

"Why are you doing this?" Ferrao asked. "This school is for the local children."

But the young men responded with rocks. After Ferrao was hit in the foot and Anthony in the chest, the priests said, they fled for help. The vandals then set the school jeep and motorcycle aflame and smashed the roof.

"This is part of a calculated, unprovoked plan," said Anthony.

The Congress Party has historically been dominant in Dangs, as it has been all over the country among tribal Indians, who make up about 8 percent of the country's population. But recently the Hindu nationalists have begun seeking to make political inroads here.

Local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the World Hindu Council, part of the same family of Hindu nationalist organizations, have been trying to win over tribal peoples by telling them that Christians in the district are taking government benefits that should be theirs though the law says the disadvantaged tribal people, regardless of their religion, are entitled to special help.

Sitting in a small, darkened room lined with portraits of Hindu gods and swatting at fat mosquitoes lazily circling at dusk, Dashrath Pawar, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Dangs, and Pradeep Patel, president of the World Hindu Council here, said that Christians are destroying the cultural unity of the villages of Dangs and dividing families by converting some members. If conversions to Christianity are not banned, Patel said, Christians will take over Dangs and drive out the Hindus.

He scoffed at the idea that Hindus are attacking Christian churches. "The Christians themselves burned their own churches," he said, accusing them of doing it to get government compensation for property damaged in such incidents.

Hindu Politicians Play Down Attacks
While churches in Dangs were burning in the days after Christmas, the national leaders of the World Hindu Council, the same group Patel heads in Dangs, were meeting in Jaipur.

In remarks to reporters, Ashok Singhal, the council's international executive president, said that the late Mother Teresa had given injections to people who refused to convert to Christianity to make them go insane. He also accused her of supporting Albanian terrorists.

In India, his remarks were not dismissed as the rantings of the Hindu fringe. It was the World Hindu Council that led a campaign that ended in 1992 with a Hindu mob destroying a 16th century Muslim mosque at Ayodhya, an event that unleashed bloody Hindu-Muslim riots and resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, mostly of Muslims.

Religious conflict has periodically cursed India, and its arrival in the tranquil hamlets of Dangs seems particularly dissonant. Far from the main roads, they are places out of another time, living to their own ancient rhythms and absorbing new faiths that the present has brought them.

Here in Jarsol, small barefoot children tend to the cows, while their mothers, balancing tin pots on their heads, walk to market with magisterial grace, and their fathers, wrapped in shawls against the chill, drive the ox carts.

Since the night of Dec. 30, when the Christian prayer hall on the hill was attacked, order has returned. Children wander curiously in the rubble. The partially burned wooden cross nailed to the gable dangles upside down.

Older Hindu villagers shook their heads at the trouble that they say outsiders have brought to Jarsol. Jivanbha Sindhe said Hindus and Christians have long lived together in brotherhood here. "Some people oppose the Christian religion, and some oppose the Hindu religion," he said. "That is the root cause of the problem. We are all poor."

Chandrya Soma, tall, gaunt and barefooted, stood nearby in a loin cloth and turban. The Christians join us in the Hindu festivals of Holi and Diwali, he said, and we respect their religion, too. A man of few words who did not know his age, Soma offered his own simple wisdom: "We all live in one village. What will we gain from fighting?"

Copyright © 1999 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.


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