Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Pastor Ramesh Jebaraj says he forgives the arsonists who destroyed his church in Tamil Nadu State, southern India, in the early hours of 13 June.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
According to local sources, on the morning of June 13, Pastor Ramesh saw the flames and thick smoke coming out of the church. By that time, the roof, made of coconut leaves and bamboos, was completely burnt.
“I was shocked for a moment looking at the church engulfed with flames and smoke. I was broken, and it was so painful, there was absolutely no way to save anything from inside the church. The church structure, instruments, and furniture inside the church are ten years of hard labor,” Pastor Ramesh told ICC.
Pastor Ramesh leads 100 members of the ‘Real Peace Church’ in Vaylur, Changalpattu district, for the last ten years. He explained this incident is part of persecution against Christians and their work in the district, as he also has been threatened to stop Christian practice in the region.
“After I recovered from the shock,” Ramesh said, “I filed a formal complaint with the police, and the police promised that they carry on the investigation.”
In 2017, in the same district, a pastor was murdered only 5 miles from where Pastor Ramesh leads the Real Peach Church in Vaylur. “This place has been a difficult place for Christians,” Ramesh said, “and their numerous instances where the Christians have been facing increased intimidations”.
The state of Tamil Nadu is known for its sizable Christian population yet ranked two in the national tally of the most hostile state for Christians to live. The church fire in Vaylur proves the reality of discrimination and assaults against Christians based on religion.
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Thursday, June 11, 2020
The visa snub to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday came as the US Congress released its own religious freedom report while a top Trump administration official said he was "very concerned" about the South Asian country's situation.
India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the government firmly repudiated the surveys of the USCIRF, which had little knowledge of the rights of Indian citizens, describing it as biased and prejudiced.
"We have also denied visas to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom," he told a legislator from Modi's governing party in a June 1 letter.
The step was taken because the government saw no grounds for a foreign entity such as the USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens' constitutionally protected rights, he said, adding that India would not accept any foreign interference or judgement on matters related to its sovereignty.
Reuters news agency said it has reviewed a copy of the letter to Nishikant Dubey, an MP who had raised the issue of the panel's report in parliament.
The US embassy in New Delhi referred all queries to the commission based in Washington, DC, which was not immediately available to respond.
Since taking power in 2014, India's Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced criticism for attacks on Muslims and other minorities.
In its report in April, the USCIRF had called for the world's biggest democracy to be designated a "country of particular concern", along with China, Iran, Russia and Syria
The panel had urged sanctions against officials in Modi's government after it excluded Muslims from the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in December last year.
"In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault," the report said.
The USCIRF is a bipartisan US government advisory body that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes non-binding policy recommendations.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday released a new 2019 International Religious Freedom Report in Washington, DC. The report, mandated by the US Congress, documents major instances of violations of religious freedom across the world.
Referring to India, the report highlighted the revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir's autonomy by the Modi government in August, the passage of the CAA in December, and attacks by Hindu vigilante groups on Muslims and Dalits (community once referred to as "untouchables") over the cow, an animal considered sacred by Hindus.
Hours after the release, Samuel Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the Trump administration, said the "trend lines [on religious freedom] have been troubling" in India, according to a report by the Press Trust of India on Wednesday.
"We do remain very concerned about what's taking place in India. It's historically just been a very tolerant, respectful country of religions, of all religions," Brownback said during a phone call with journalists on Wednesday.
"It really needs a lot more effort on this topic in India, and my concern is, too, that if those efforts are not put forward, you're going to see a growth in violence and increased difficulty within the society writ large."
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Monday, February 18, 2019
Members of a Hindu group are up in arms over a statue of a German Jesuit priest outside an Indian Catholic church, claiming that the missionary worked against local people and honoring him insults tribal sentiments.
The tribal cell of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Feb. 13 petitioned police to remove the bust of Father John Baptist Hoffmann from the compound of Sarwada parish in Khunti district, about 55 kilometers from Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand state.
The petition called on police to remove the statue as it insults local tribal leaders like Birsa Munda, who fought foreigners for tribal rights, tribal cell leader Ram Kumar Pahan told media.
The group claims that in the 19th century Father Hoffmann and the British attacked the civilization and culture of tribals. Having his bust on tribal soil is unacceptable, Pahan said.
They have been protesting the statue intermittently since its installation in December but intensified their action in the second week of February as the country moves closer to a national election before May. Elections in the BJP-ruled state are due in December.
Church leaders say the BJP has deliberately made unfair claims against the missionary to create a controversy to divide tribal people, a major voting bloc in Jharkhand. Dividing tribal votes on religious lines could help the BJP garner non-Christian tribal votes, they say.
“The controversy is a ploy of the ruling BJP to divide tribal people,” said Father Masih Prakash Soy, secretary to Bishop Binay Kandulna of Khunti.
The BJP has “miserably failed to fulfil its promises and meet the aspirations of the people” and has “embarked on a divisive agenda” ahead of both state and national elections, the priest said.
Hindus are angry that a plaque near the statue claims that Father Hoffmann was the main architect of the 1908 Chotanagpur Tenancy Act that the British enacted to restrict the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people. They claim Birsa Munda’s struggle led to the law.
Father Hoffmann (1857-1928) came to India as a Jesuit novice at the age of 20. As a priest, he worked mostly among the Munda tribal people in the present Jharkhand area and established several measures for their rights including a cooperative society and a bank.
Besides helping to enact laws to protect tribal people, he also contributed to their language and culture by providing a grammar book and a 15-volume encyclopedia on Munda culture and civilization, said Father Xavier Sorang, a Jesuit social worker based in state capital Ranchi.
Most tribal people understand the contributions of the missioner, said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
The bishop said the protest comes from “a small group which is trying to disturb the peace. But people are not foolish … they know who had done what for whom.”
He said the Church should ignore such protests because the intention of these groups is to divide and break society for political gains.
Jharkhand’s tribal population, who form 26 percent of 33 million people in the state, is politically decisive, as are its one million Christians, almost all of them tribal people.
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Saturday, February 16, 2019
London: Political rhetoric and ambiguous interpretations of the Freedom of Religion Acts (or “anti-conversion” laws) are responsible for the high rate of Christian persecution in India, according to the UK-US-based monitoring group Open Doors that publishes an annual World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most dangerous to live as a Christian.
In 2019, India ranked tenth – a first in the history of the list in over two decades. Dr Matthew Rees who authored the report told The Wire that “India has been going up the list rather steadily for the past five years” and can now be classified as a country with extreme persecution. Approximately 64 million Christians live in India but constitute less than 5% of the total population of 1.3 billion.
This report is based on the data Open Doors collects annually through an extensive survey in 75 countries. Church leaders and other community volunteers administer questionnaires to Christians in their regions and then send the data to Open Doors offices in the Netherlands and North America, where researchers collate it to obtain a quantitative figures for persecution in each country.
The ranks are obtained by analysing the following:
1. Pressure experienced in five spheres of life: private, family, community, national and church;
A country with a score of more than 80 out of 100 is deemed to have extreme persecution. India has 83% persecution points and sits between Iran and Syria on the list. Pakistan ranks fifth. In 2014, India was ranked 28 with 55% persecution points.
Factors determining India’s rank
One of the factors that pushed India higher on the list is the “toxic narrative around this idea of the connection of Hinduism and being Indian,” says Dr Rees, adding that it is visible not just “from the extreme end of the RSS movement, but is also creeping into the language of the elected politicians and officials.”
The report mentions how the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, famously described Christians and Muslims as ‘foreigners of the nation’ in 2017 when he was the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson and Ashok Singhal, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, declaring the BJP-led alliance in 2014 as the beginning of a revolution that would turn India entirely Hindu by 2020.
Dr Rees is not hesitant to admit that research findings show that the increase in Christian persecution “is connected to the BJP party.” “When influential people use this language, it filters down to the rest of society and we think that is playing a big part in the mob violence and social ostracism,” he says. The report mentions how Christians in five villages in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra faced mob violence and discrimination in August 2018 where ‘their faith was seen as a threat to that community’s wider Hindu identity’.
“If you are not Hindu, then your Indian identity is questioned, and if your identity as an Indian is questioned then also your right to the constitution is questioned,” explains Dr Rees.
He adds that a “big factor is the Freedom of Religion Act or ‘anti-conversion’ legislation” that is in force in eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand. Data obtained by Open Doors shows that violence against Christians is higher in some of these states.
Open Doors’ data revealed that of the 16,000 violations, religious leaders were often accused of conversion activities when they were taking part in simple religious activities like prayer meetings or even marriages, which mobs would disrupt and report to police as a conversion activity. According to Dr Rees, legislation around ‘anti-conversion’ needs to be better defined.
“We don’t want to accuse the police of always being complicit; there are examples where the police are simply unsure about what to do. But we also have examples of the police taking part in beatings when Christians are taken into custody,” said Dr Rees, highlighting that Indian Christians face double persecution – based on religion and caste/class – as almost 70% of Christians are Dalits.
Open Doors works with governments in the UK and US to lobby for changes in countries like India through diplomatic channels to highlight the plight of Christians and facilitate changes in laws and policies that protect minority communities. There are two main policy changes that they recommend.
The first is the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims under the purview of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to offer them additional legal protection and rehabilitation in case of caste-based violence. The second is a review and better interpretation of India’s Freedom of Religion Acts, so that it is neither misused nor misinterpreted.
The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has shown his support to the Open Doors’ research by launching the World Watch List 2019 in January. He also expressed his shock and disappointment with India. “In countries where we might have hoped there wouldn’t be a serious issue, like India, we know that this is becoming a much bigger issue,” he said.
He has also called for an official review to be conducted by the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen on how the UK can support Christians worldwide. “I want to make absolutely sure when I am meeting a foreign minister, a prime minister or a president in another country, and there’s an issue concerning religious freedom, and in particular the rights of Christians, I want to make sure that it is absolutely on my list of things that I need to raise,” he said.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not reached out to the High Commission of India in the UK in this regard. The Wire has contacted the FCO to enquire if they have initiated any dialogue with India, but is yet to receive a response.
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