Wednesday, February 26, 2014

BJP Going All Out to Woo Christians

Pursuing prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s strategy of using development and corruption as the main poll plank without invoking the Hindutva slogan, the state BJP is making a vigorous bid to reach out to the Christian community ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
The party is all set for an open interaction with the community leaders and intellectuals to dispel the negative image in their minds about the BJP.  The first of this interaction with the theme ‘BJP’s Vision for Christian Brethren’ will be held on Tuesday evening in Bangalore. Retired High Court judge MF Saldanha and retired IAS officer Lucas Vallatharai among others are scheduled to participate in the event.
State BJP leadership has invited its Deputy Chief Minister in Goa, Francis DSouza to use his goodwill at the interaction.  Former  minister Suresh Kumar will explain BJP’s commitment to secularism and programmes implemented by the previous BJP government for the welfare of the community.
General Secretary of BJP Minority Morcha, Kennedy Shantakumar told Express: “Christians are a highly educated community. The previous BJP government had launched several programmes for the welfare of this community. Former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa had for the first time allocated `50 crore for their development. He had also set up Karnataka Christian Development Council. The community has many prejudices and misconceptions about the BJP. We will try to remove them through open interactions with prominent leaders of the community.”
Similar interactions would be organised in regions where there  is a significant concentration of Christian population. “The Christian community has organised an interaction with leaders of all the prominent political parties at St Mark’s Cathedral in Bangalore on March 1. The BJP wants to understand the aspirations of the Christian community,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy pointed out at  the recent developments in Kerala, where orthodox Church leaders had appreciated Modi’s development agenda.
However, the party still has a long way to go in its endeavour. This was evident when Express contacted Lucas Vellatharai, who is one of the guest listed in the BJP’s invite. “Attacks against Christians and Churches had seen a rise during the BJP regime. There are many good leaders in the BJP too. But it is the writ of the lower level leaders that runs. It will be difficult to believe the BJP unless it severs its ties with hardcore Sangh Parivar,” he said. Vellatharai also said that he could not confirm his participation at Tuesday’s interaction as he has to attend another programme on the same evening. “I will turn up only if the other programme, which I have to attend, ends early,” he said.
Counting on Community
Christians constitute about 3.1 per cent of the state’s total population. The community is in a position to play a decisive role in Bangalore Central and Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituencies. The BJP had fielded H T Sangliana, a Christian as its candidate from Bangalore North Lok Sabha constituency in 2004.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The secret 'crusade'

Religion and violence cross paths again in small-town Andhra Pradesh as right-wing fundamentalists target the local clergy, allegedly to arrest conversions
On January 10, at around 8:30pm in Vikarabad, 69km from Hyderabad, a group of men knocked on Pastor Sanjeevulu’s door. They said they had come to offer prayers. When Pramila, the pastor’s wife, opened the door, she was struck on the forehead with an iron rod. The assailants then marched into the house and stabbed the pastor, repeatedly. He was beaten with clubs and hit on the head with the iron rod. The attack barely lasted 10 minutes but Sanjeevulu sustained severe injuries to his liver, spleen and intestines. Three days later, he succumbed to his wounds at the Yashoda Hospital in Hyderabad.
By the end of January, State police had arrested seven of the eight accused. All of them have been linked to Hindu Vahini, a right-wing organisation described as an affiliate of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, with its State unit located in Hyderabad. G Sreenu, alias Rama Krishna, was identified as the leader of the group formed by youth from the Nalgonda district. He had been working at Hindu Vahini as a full-time pracharak for the last few years.
In December 2013, three other attacks on clergy members were reported in the same district. These four incidents have revealed a chilling pattern — the same modus operandi, the same right-wing outfit behind the attacks, conversions as the alleged motive. In what appears to be a series of planned attacks, churches in Andhra Pradesh are increasingly being targeted by right-wing assailants. In 2013 alone, the State witnessed 72 incidents of anti-Christian violence, with several more unreported, say local residents. According to a report released by Catholic Secular Forum last year, AP had the second highest incidence of cases of persecution against Christians after Karnataka. In total, around 4,000 Christians, were targeted, 400 clergy members among them. About 100 churches were also attacked. In Nalgonda district alone, more than 1,000 churches are now living in fear.
On December 29, at 11:45pm, four men came knocking at Pastor Nama Moses’s door in Narketpally town, Nalgonda. Suvartha, the pastor’s wife, opened the door, thinking it was an acquaintance. She was struck on the head with an iron rod and Pastor Moses was hit repeatedly and stabbed nine times — a chillingly similar sequence of events echoing the assault on Pastor Sanjeevulu. Nearly two months later in February, when BLink contacted Pastor Moses, he had survived the brutal attack but was in no condition to talk. “The pastor has been here for two decades now and I’ve never known such enmity. I don’t understand why we were attacked. He has never forced anyone to convert,” says Suvartha. Her daughters, she says, have been unable to go to school out of fear. And attendance at his church has dwindled. “A few of them were local youth,” says Suvartha, “and they had recently attacked another pastor as well.”
“People are afraid of persecution,” says Kavitha, a resident of Nalgonda town. “The pastor’s children were in the room when the attack happened. It was only the morning after when they got any help.” Four weeks ago, a meeting was held at the Church of South India — Kavitha’s church — to discuss the violence targeting the community. “There have been many attacks here,” Kavitha says, “but most of them don’t make news.” If aggressively campaigned conversions are being cited as the reason for the attacks, locals at least, dismiss the idea. “I was the first in my family to turn to Christianity 13 years ago,” says Kavitha. “Nobody forced me to. Nobody offered me anything in return. My mother was a staunch Hindu, she didn’t approve of it. But today my family has converted.”
“The attack on Pastor Moses might have been personally motivated,” says Nalgonda’s Deputy Superintendent Ram Mohan Rao. “G Raju, one of the group’s members, was known to have a personal grudge. Someone in his family had a bad experience two years ago and he had contacted Sreenu to do something about religious conversions.”
However, Pastor Talla Christopher was attacked on the same day as Pastor Moses in another village of the same district. And, in yet another incident in December, Pastor Neeladri Pal was also attacked. While the police have made some arrests, the accused have apparently revealed a larger, systematic plan of Hindu Vahini to eliminate members of the clergy all over AP. Pastors in other districts — Adilabad, Nizamabad, Medak — have also received death threats.
“There is no personal angle in these attacks,” says Father Sudhakar, pastor of Telugu Baptist Church in Warangal, who is involved in documenting anti-Christian atrocities in the State. “It is politically motivated and it is right-wing terror against minorities. Hindutva elements have been attacking in three ways — attacks on the clergy, implicating church officials in false cases of hate speech and demolishing churches and burning Bibles.” In 2013, he says, there was a 70 per cent increase in the attacks. This year has already seen four attacks. “We have also documented 22 false cases against pastors.”
In an election year, the threat to Christian minorities has acquired a serious political colour; various church associations have written to the CM seeking a ban on Hindu Vahini. MIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi has also demanded immediate action against Hindutva elements in the legislative assembly.
“You know, it’s not only SCs, other communities have also started turning to Christianity,” says Kavitha, “and it has not gone down well.” The base is definitely growing, says Father Sudhakar. “We don’t call them conversions, 90 per cent of SCs in AP are Christians spiritually, if not on paper.”
Pastor Jayraj still doesn’t know why he was attacked. On August 9, 2011, in Narketpally, he was attacked by a 10-member mob at his home. He was hit on the head and left to die. “I’ve heard of Hindu Vahini but I don’t know what they do. I couldn’t identify them, they had masks on. The police never caught them.”
With the violence directed towards Christian minorities only growing, older, unsolved cases like that of Pastor Jayraj are being revisited to look for possible links to right-wing terrorism. “After Pastor Moses, other cases that were undetected have come to light,” says DSP Mohan Rao. “Cases from 2011, even 2009, are being reopened too.” Even as investigations are on, the fear of being attacked continues to haunt AP’s Christian community.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Attacks Against Minorities in India Increased Last Year

Attacks against India's minority communities, particularly Muslims and Christians, have increased in the past one year, US lawmakers were told today.

During this period, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) received reports that communal violence and attacks against religious minorities increased in India despite its status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, USCIRF Commissioner Elliott Abrams told lawmakers.

"NGOs and religious leaders, including from the Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities, attribute the increase to India's upcoming 2014 general election and politicians' use of religiously divisive language, and they fear that incidents will become even more frequent as the general election nears and immediately thereafter," Abrams said during a Congressional hearing.

He said Christian NGOs and leaders had reported that Christians experience "more harassment and violence in states that have anti-conversion laws". He added, "In addition, India's record in investigating and prosecuting religiously motivated crimes remained mixed."

Testifying before the Congressional committee, Tehmina Arora from Alliance Defending Freedom-India alleged that attacks have been reported across the country over the past five years, though primarily concentrated in states where the main opposition BJP has been in power and where groups associated with it are active.

"Violence is fuelled primarily by non-state actors who are guided by the Hindutva ideology, which sees India as a Hindu nation, where religious minorities are second-class citizens," said Arora, who flew in from New Delhi for the hearing.

"India, in spite of its long tradition for religious tolerance, finds itself in the throes of religious fundamentalism and violence against religious minorities for the past few decades," she said.

Reports by faith-based rights agencies showed that Christians had suffered about 150 violent attacks on an average in the past few years, Arora said.

These attacks include physical and sexual assaults, murder and desecration of places of worship and graveyards, she said.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Christians, Sikhs lobby U.S. Congress to defend India’s persecuted

Washington, USA (February 10, 2013): According to certain media reports Indian Christians and Sikhs united last month to urge California Congressmen to support a House resolution that would make human rights and justice for religious minorities a priority in U.S.-India talks.
HR 417 is waiting on hearings in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees, which must approve it before it can come to the House floor for a vote. The annual talks, which President Barack Obama began in 2009, last took place in June 2013.
“This is a particularly concerning issue at the moment because India is going to elect a new prime minister in May,” said Pieter Singh, executive director of Sikh Information Centre and Advisor to the Organization for Minorities of India.
Singh said both candidates, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, are linked to past attacks on religious minorities, including Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. Gandhi is the grandson of Indira Gandhi, who led a military assault on the Golden Temple, a Sikh holy place, in 1984. Modi has been accused of being complicit in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat state, according to Agence France Presse. He is a member of the Bharatiya Janata party, a Hindu nationalist political group.
“This is where religious minorities in India are at the moment,” Singh said. “These two men are fighting to rule India and look at their records.” The union of Christians and Sikhs, was a “natural alliance” given their religious motivation to help the oppressed, he said.
In 2009, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) put India on a “watch list” for its inadequate response to anti-Christian violence in Orissa (now Odisha) in 2008, and the Gujarat killings of Muslims in 2002. In 2013, USCIRF’s annual report placed India in Tier 2 status, noting that Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims said intimidation and harassment had increased, especially in states with laws against “forced” conversions.
William Stark, International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for South Asia, said most persecution in India stems from Hindutva, the ideology that to be Indian is to be Hindu and that other faiths are foreign. Authorities said Hindu extremists were part of the group that stabbed a Christian pastor to death on his doorstep in early January, Morning Star News reported.
Hindu extremists use anti-forced conversion laws, which makes it illegal to “induce” someone to convert, to arrest Christians because the interpretation of the word “induce” can include the promise of eternal life, Stark said. In 2013, the Catholic Secular Forum counted 4,000 offenses against Christians, including attacks on clergy and churches.
“Passing HR 417 means valuing peace and the preservation of human life over political gain, and supporting the resolution is one of the key ways Christians can act to relieve the oppressed,” Singh said in a statement.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Dalit Christians renew demand for scheduled caste status

KOLKATA: Despite their decades-long demand, the central government is yet to decide on giving scheduled caste status to Dalit Christians. The National Council of Churches in India (An umbrella organization of 30 churches in the country - feels that it is time the government addressed the issue and provided justice to them.
The community here considers the demand for SC status to Dalit Christians the "the longest struggle in independent India". The call surfaced once again as National Council of Churches in India observed its centenary celebration.
"Reservation should not be affected by religious status. Dalits who converted to Sikhism and Buddhism are given Scheduled Caste status. This is discrimination against Christians," said Sunil Raj Philip, convenor of NCCI centenary celebration.
Earlier last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Christian leaders and promised to resolve the issue, after Christians and Muslims protested in New Delhi demanding SC status to Dalit Christians and Muslims as recommended by Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission.
"There has not been any progress after that and we are awaiting responses from the government," Raj Philip said.
The government referred the issue to the national Commission for religious and Linguistic Minorities or Ranganath Mishra Commission in 2004. The commission submitted its report in 2007 and the report was tabled in the parliament in 2009. According to Raj Philip,12 state governments and Union Territories have recommended the issue of granting SC status to Dalit Christians. Responding to a petition filed in 2004 Supreme Court had also asked the central government for its response. But it is yet to respond to that," he said.
Meanwhile, the national councils of churches in the neighbouring countries have decided to start dialogues with administrations in respective countries to address the issues affecting Christians. "We will campaign for protection of human rights in all of the neighbouring countries. We will also try to provide help wherever possible. We will initiate dialogues with the administrations to reach a solution," said Roger Gaikwad, general secretary of NCCI.
NCCI has denied reports that the NCCI president and member churches endorse the leadership and candidacy of Narendra Modi. "NCCI, being the ecumenical body of member churches from different traditions, does not endorse any political party or leader," a statement said.

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Friday, February 07, 2014

India: Court Asks Christians To Wait One Year To File For Divorce

The separation period required for a Christian couple to file a petition for dissolution of marriage by mutual consent will be one year, the Karnataka high court ruled on Monday.
The court disposed of public interest litigation relating to Section 10A (1) of the Divorce Act, 1869, (applicable to Christians) in the light of a 2010 verdict of a division bench of the Kerala high court.
The Kerala court had read down the ‘two years’ separation period in Section 10 A to ‘one year’ so as to bring the same in conformity with Section 13B of the Hindu Marriage Act, Section 32B of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act and Section 28 of the Special Marriage Act.
A division bench headed by Chief Justice DH Waghela noted that the Kerala court judgment has become the law of land in the light of an apex court judgment which says that any verdict of a high court holds good for the entire country unless the same is challenged in the apex court.
The bench also noted that the Centre, which was a respondent before the Kerala court, did not challenge the said judgment.
During the hearing, counsel for the Archdiocese of Bangalore said that the dissolution of a Christian marriage by divorce by mutual consent or by decree of court is not at all recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).
“But realizing that a ‘marriage’ could be brought about with underlying defects or shortcomings or other disqualification, the RCC has procedure for annulment of marriage. Annulment by church is the only way of termination of marriage recognized by the RCC,” he said.
The PIL was filed by Shivakumar, who challenged the norm under Section 10A of the Divorce act prescribing a two-year period prior to filling of petition for divorce by Christians.
The petitioner contended that a two-year separation period is arbitrary as the Special Marriages Act, the Hindu Marriage Act and the Parsi Marriage Act have a one-year separation period clause.
The Kerala high court had said: “Having considered all the relevant circumstances, we are of the opinion that the stipulation of a higher period of two years of mandatory minimum separate residence for those to whom the Divorce Act applies, in contra-distinction to those similarly placed to whom Sec 13B of the Hindu Marriage Act, Sec 32B of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act and Sec 28 of the Special Marriage Act would apply, offends the mandate of equality and right to life under Arts14 and 21 of the Constitution.”

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Hindu extremists accused of killing pastor in India

The gang that knocked on the door of a pastor’s home in Andhra Pradesh state and stabbed him to death earlier this month consisted of Hindu extremists, authorities said.

State police have arrested seven of the eight members of the Hindu Vahini group accused of attacking pastor Orucanti Sanjeevi on Jan. 10 at his home in Vikarabad, 64 kilometers (39 miles) from the state capital of Hyderabad, Area Deputy Superintendent of Police J. Ram Mohan Roa told Morning Star News. The other suspect is absconding, he said.

Pastor Sanjeevi, 48, succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 13.

“The key member of this module is Gandikota Srinu, alias RK, a full-time member of the Hindu Vahini, and these same people attempted to kill another pastor in Narketpally,” Roa said.

The Rev. Madhusudan Das of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said the Hindu extremists were upset about Christian growth in the area.

“The area where the pastor was killed was a strongly Hindu-dominated area,” Das said. “However, the church has seen growth as many people decided to follow Christ. The extremists harbored strong resentment against the pastor for the same reason.”

A large throng of Christians had besieged the state chief minister’s office on Jan. 14, protesting the killing and demanding justice, with police detaining some of the protestors.

At about 8:30 p.m. on the night of the attack, the Hindu extremists knocked on the door of the pastor’s house, claiming they wanted to pray with him, sources said. When his wife, Pramila, opened the door, they hit her with an iron rod, they said.

The Hindu extremists then stormed into the house, stabbed the pastor, beat him with clubs and hit him on the head with an iron rod. His wife managed to run out and call for help.

“The pastor was lying in a pool of blood when some people came to help him,” area Christian leader Franklin Sudharkar told Morning Star News. “The attack lasted only about 10 minutes, but the pastor sustained severe injuries as he was stabbed in the liver, intestines and spleen.”

He was rushed to a hospital and put on ventilator, but he succumbed to his injuries at about 3 p.m. on Jan. 13.

Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Churches, told Asia News that members of a Hindu extremist group had engaged the pastor in a heated discussion about three months ago and threatened him.

Pastor Sanjeevi had overseen the 250-member Hebron Church in Vakirabad.

The attack appeared to be well-planned, and police believe the extremists have made a hit list of targets, Roa said.

On Dec. 29, he said, the same Hindu extremists knocked on the door of the house of Baptist pastor Nama Moses in Narketpally, about 170 kilometers (105 miles) from Vakirabad, and attacked him in a similar way. The pastor opened the door thinking the person knocking was seeking shelter, said Moses Vatipalli of the All India Christian Council (AICC).

“One extremist with a knife barged into the house and started stabbing the pastor and the wife while two were standing outside,” Vatipalli told Morning Star News. “The pastor received nine stab wounds, and his wife sustained seven stitches on her head where the extremist hit her with an iron rod.”

The couple received hospital treatment for 15 days, and the pastor was still on bed-rest at press time.

Roa added that the assailants “held grudges against the Christian couple, as his grandparents started attending Christian meetings regularly.”

In the same area on Aug. 9, 2011, masked Hindu extremists attacked pastor Jaya Raj and an unidentified church member at midnight at the pastor’s home. The assailants broke Raj’s left hand and broke his nose, and the other Christian sustained severe injuries to his head, reported the AICC. Both of them received hospital treatment.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Christians below political radar: Council ‘Contribution overlooked’

Calcutta, Feb. 2: Christians in India have not been included in the mainstream political discourse despite substantial contributions to society and sustained efforts in nation-building, a national council of Protestant churches said today.
“Some people still think we are not Indians…. Christians are not present in the political discourse of mainstream parties today. Despite helping give the country some of the finest schools, colleges and hospitals, our efforts in nation-building and contributions towards society have been overlooked,” said Bishop Taranath S. Sagar, president of the National Council of Churches in India.
Kicking off its year-long centenary celebrations from Calcutta on Sunday, the council also referred to the Bengal government’s decision to provide doles to Muslim clerics. “If the government is handing honorariums to Muslim clerics, I would request the chief minister to also extend the honorariums to Christians as well. This act (giving doles to one particular community) is simply pleasing a section of society for votes,” Bishop Sagar said in response to a question after a news conference at Calcutta Boys’ School in the afternoon.
The Mamata Banerjee government gives an honorarium of Rs 2,500 a month to imams and Rs 1,000 a month to muezzins in Bengal.
The council is an ecumenical body of 30 Protestant and Orthodox churches across India and a slew of Christian councils and organisations.
It is the second largest body of churches in the country and includes the Church of North India and Church of South India as member churches. Nearly 50 per cent, about 12 million of the total Christian population of 25 million in India, are Protestants.
Calcutta was chosen as the first stop in a series of countrywide celebrations because on February 2, 1914, it was at the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) building on S.N. Banerjee Road that the body held its first meeting and formed a council.
The celebrations will move to Aizawl, Hyderabad and Mumbai among other cities in the coming months and culminate at the headquarters in Nagpur in November.
As the centenary year coincides with the Lok Sabha polls, the council articulated its concerns. The existing political establishment, it felt, had failed to acknowledge or address the needs and aspirations of the Christian community and largely overlooked its contributions to the nation.
The council lamented that the term “minority” had become synonymous with just one community, overshadowing the others.
“If we look historically, Christians are the true minorities… but today (the word) ‘minority’ has become attached with just one community. There is no Protestant representation in Parliament from West Bengal,” said Suman J. Biswas, vice-president of the council.
Accusing politicians of consistently using religion for political gains, the council rued how issues like poverty had remained sidelined and religious minorities had rarely been acknowledged as anything but a vote bank.
Speaking on the community’s preferences for the upcoming elections, the Bishop said in response to a question that Christians were “highly divided” in their opinion on Narendra Modi.
“Modi played the development card in Gujarat and is playing the same card nationally now. But even if he becomes the Prime Minister and acts secular, he might face pressure from the lower cadres of the party. We are highly divided in our opinion of Modi and I cannot make one general statement on behalf of the Christians. Christians have traditionally been followers of the Congress… but it might be time for some change,” Bishop Sagar said.
He added that the council did not “endorse any particular party”. “We need a leader who is strong and understands the needs of the minorities and works for grass-roots development,” the Bishop said.
The theme of the celebrations “towards integral mission and grassroots ecumenism” was explained as one that was aimed at motivating people to go back to the grassroots of the society and work towards its development.
“In recent times, the development of the country has only been measured by political parties in terms of bridges, high-rises and metro rails. Grassroots development of the marginalised has remained neglected and that is why growth has not been uniform,” said Reverend Sunil Raj Philip, the executive secretary of the council.
The news conference was followed by a worship service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the evening.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

MP Christians fast for stable govt post elections

Bhopal: Around 70-80 members of Christian community began their 72-hour-long fast at a church in Govindpura area here praying for stable government at Centre post elections.

The members representing different denominations began the fast last evening under Father Anil Martin.

The exercise is organised under the banner of National Prayer Alliance of Christian Community, which is undertaking similar fasts across as many as 72 districts in various parts of the country.

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