Friday, December 16, 2005

Hindu Extremists Claim Indian Pastor's House

Eviction notice sent to pastor; idol installed on verandah.

NEW DELHI, December 14 (Compass) – Pastor Feroz Masih of the Believers' Church in India (BCI), who had earlier received death and arson threats, was forced to vacate his house in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India, on December 7.

"The administration of Baijnath town had served us an eviction notice, and members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP or World Hindu Council] also installed a Hindu idol on the verandah of our house," Ramesh Masih, the pastor's son, told Compass.

The VHP had earlier assaulted Masih and told him and about 60 members of the BCI that if they did not "re-convert" to Hinduism in a ceremony scheduled for November 20, they would be burned alive and their houses destroyed. (See Compass Direct, "Hindu Extremists Attack Church in Himachal Pradesh, India," November 14.)

Police stepped in and prevented any physical harm to the believers and their homes. (See Compass Direct, "Threat to Burn Christians to Death in India Defused," November 21.)

Local authorities then served an eviction notice on the Masih family on November 30. When Masih pleaded for more time, the eviction date was extended to December 16.

Masih's family did not own the land they were living on, but the Indian government usually affords squatter's rights when a family has lived on the land for at least 20 years.

These rights date back to a Supreme Court decision in 1985, when the court ruled that the right to adequate housing, shelter and livelihood was part of the all-encompassing right to life as outlined in Article 21 of the India Constitution. The court also said new accommodation must be arranged before squatters are evicted.

The Masih family could have fought to stay in their home, but they were intimidated by the VHP.

"On December 2, about 20 VHP members came and created a disturbance outside our house," Masih explained. "They said a large crowd would soon gather at the temple to make trouble for us."

The family locked the house and went to stay with relatives that night. When they returned on November 4, a small group of VHP members who were standing guard outside the house told the family that it no longer belonged to them.

"Instead of arguing, we moved the worship service to another believer's house," Masih said. "However, later that day we heard that the VHP had put an idol on the verandah."

Because of this intimidation, Masih's family was forced to vacate the house even before December 16, he said.

"Otherwise," he said, "we could have taken a stay order from the court, asking the administration to arrange for alternative housing, since we have documented evidence that we have been living in the house for more than 20 years."

Sandeep Kumar, a local official in Baijnath, confirmed that the VHP had installed a Hindu idol on the verandah. "I have ordered that the idol be shifted to the temple next door, and the VHP has agreed to do so," he said.

V.V. Augustine, a member of the National Commission for Minorities, told Compass, "It is extremely unfortunate that the administration evicted the Masih family and allowed the Hindu fundamentalists to occupy the house."

Augustine has asked the chief secretary of the Himachal Pradesh government to intervene, he said. "I also intend to visit the family and the area personally."

Kumar, the Baijnath official, said there was no connection between the VHP death threats and the eviction notice being sent just days afterward.

"It was a coincidence," he said. "Our office cannot be influenced by the VHP or any other organization."

Kumar said his office had serviced eviction notices to Masih since 1991. Masih appealed a notice in 2001 but it was rejected, he added.

"Masih is from Punjab [state] and according to our state law, he cannot buy a property in Himachal Pradesh," Kumar said. "Our office will not provide him with alternative housing."