Saturday, July 14, 2018

Christians in Rajasthan, India Harassed with False Charges, Church Leaders Say

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – When evangelists in India were accused of fraudulent conversion in a village at a time when they were hundreds of miles from it, they knew powers beyond their control were at play.

Pastor Kasiram Meghwal, 46, was leading his church in Choru, Rajasthan, 410 miles from the village near Khajuwala where he was accused of trying to fraudulently convert people on May 20, his attorney said.

Evangelist Sahiram Nayak, 34, lives 136 miles from Khajuwala in Sri Ganganagar and was attending his church in Rai Singh Nagar at the time, the lawyer said. A third accused Christian, 32-year-old pastor Vijender Singh, was leading Sunday service at his church in a different area of Khajuwala at the time of the alleged fraudulent conversion attempt at Hindus’ homes, according to the attorney.

The three Christians came together in the Khajuwala area on May 22 to proclaim Christ to villagers, but the First Action Report (FIR) filed by area resident Rameshwar Lal alleges that on May 20 they offered him 100,000 rupees (US$1,450) and 50,000 rupees (US$730) to another area Hindu to convert, attorney Subodh Mathews told Morning Star News.

Having obtained bail for a previous false charge, the three Christians were devastated to be jailed again on May 24 under a statute against “outraging religious feelings.” Their plea for bail was denied.

“We wept before the Lord, but we never abandoned our faith,” Pastor Singh told Morning Star News. “We met many people inside the prison, including a few people who told us that they were in the habit of committing murders for money, and that they related to some extremist religious groups as well. They told us that they would have gladly killed us, had they seen us outside.”

Undaunted, the Christians told the convicts about Christ and held a Sunday worship service inside the prison on May 27, he said.

“We got the opportunity to share inside the jail to murderers,” he said.

With much difficulty they were able to obtain bail on May 29 and were released.


On May 22 they distributed Christian literature and New Testaments among families of village 16 BD and then went to the home of Kaku Singh in village 14 BD, near Khajuwala in Bikaner District, Rajasthan, Pastor Singh told Morning Star News. After inviting them in, Kaku Singh told them that his wife was suffering from cancer, he said.

“We shared the gospel with him and prayed for his wife and decided to leave,” but Kaku Singh insisted on offering them tea, Pastor Singh said. While the three evangelists were waiting, Rameshwar Lal called them out of the house on the pretext of asking questions about the literature they had given him earlier, the pastor said.

When they stepped out of the house, a man named Darshan Singh suddenly attacked them, he said.

“He caught me from my collar, slapped me and pushed me down,” Pastor Singh said. “He started to verbally abuse us using filthy language. They punched Sahiram too.”

Soon a mob of about 80 people surrounded them, carrying wooden sticks with intent to attack the Christians, he said.

Though Kaku Singh would file the first case against them, he objected to the mob dragging the three Christians towards the main road with the intention of killing them, the pastor said. He said that as the mob shouted, “We will kill you today,” Kaku Singh called police to keep them from being killed.

Police soon arrived and took the Christians into protective custody, or otherwise they would have been killed, Pastor Singh said. The three Christians were arrested under Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, “Arrest to prevent the commission of cognizable offenses.”

A police officer told the Christians that he immediately rushed to the site because he was aware of how Christians are being targeted in India, the pastor said.

Surrounding the police van carrying the three evangelists, the mob demanded that they be handed over to them or they would set fire to the police van, he said.

“The atmosphere got very tensed,” Pastor Singh said. “It was dangerous.”

Police managed to bring the Christians to the Khajuwala police station for questioning. Officers treated them with respect and consideration, the pastor said.

“While we were there, the sitting Member of Legislative Assembly [MLA], Dr. Vishwanath Meghwal, who belongs to the BJP [Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party], kept calling the police inspector and kept pressuring him to question us thoroughly,” Pastor Singh said. “The policeman, exasperated by the frequent calls of the MLA, finally asked him to come to the police station and satisfy himself by interrogating us.”

Kaku Singh accused the three Christians, all members of the Brethren Assembly, of trying to lure him and Lal to convert to Christianity.

The next day, May 23, after the Christians had secured bail and were walking out of the police station, they were arrested again, this time based on a separate complaint dated May 20 and submitted by Lal, who had called the Christians out of Kaku Singh’s home. His FIR alleges that the Christians offered him 100,000 rupees (US$1,450) and 50,000 rupees (US$730) to Kaku Singh, and they were re-arrested under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for alleged “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion.” 

Since being bailed out, two court hearings have passed, one on June 5 and another on June 30, though no formal charges have been filed. Church leaders believe the accusations are rooted only in the desire to harass the Christians.

T.J. Joseph, senior leader of the Brethren Mission, said legal proceedings could harass the evangelists for years.

“Though they have been bailed out, they have to travel long distances for every court date of theirs,” Joseph told Morning Star News.

The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.

India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution. 

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‘Total impunity’ in India, as Muslims and Christians ‘bear brunt of ruling ideology’

Frequent reports of violent attacks against India’s religious minorities show the “total impunity” enjoyed by their Hindu nationalist attackers, says one civil rights activist.

In one recent attack, a pastor, his wife and their congregation were attacked at their ‘house church’ in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state on Sunday (8 July), advocacy group CSW reported.

Paul Stephen was hit with a heavy stone, leaving him with severe injuries. He had reportedly received several threats during the past year. His wife, Prathiba Stephen, was also assaulted, including an attempted rape, CSW said, while other members of their family were also assaulted.

The pastor had previously reported incidents of violence and harassment against his church in Paguthampalayam village, with the local government being forced to step in to settle a conflict reportedly instigated by the head of a local Hindu extremist group, Hindu Munnani (Hindu Front).

Following the attack, four people were arrested who in turn filed a complaint against the pastor and his family, accusing them of assault.

“It is not uncommon for the victims of religiously motivated violence to find their cases undermined by counter-accusations by their attackers,” CSW said.

“We urge the authorities to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account,” said CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas. “The cycle of impunity around cases such as this must be broken to ensure that Indian citizens of all religions can exercise their right to practise their religion or belief without fear.”

Nehemiah Christie, Director of Legislation & Regulations of the Synod of Pentecostal Churches in Tamil Nadu, condemned the “inaction” of local authorities. “We hope that the authorities will now take seriously the concerns raised by civil society in both Tamil Nadu and wider Indian society,” he said.

In another incident reported by CSW, Christians from Pratapgarh district in Uttar Pradesh state were attacked on 2 July by an armed Hindu mob, who broke into the church grounds shouting anti-Christian slogans.

They disrupted the prayer meeting with a gunshot into the air and attacked those inside the church, including women and children, CSW said. Eight people were reportedly wounded and taken to a local health centre.

Church furniture, equipment, motorbikes and literature were also reportedly damaged.

The attack has been attributed to Hindu Yuva Vahini, a group that has the support of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, according to civil rights activist John Dayal.

“Impunity is total in the state, where Muslims and Christians bear the brunt of the ruling ideology,” he said. “It needs to be remembered that Uttar Pradesh does not have an ‘anti-conversion law’, and yet even the police and judiciary presume that evangelical activity and even prayer groups are illegal or a criminal activity.”

Earlier this week, World Watch Monitor reported the detention of 16 more Christians in Jharkhand state, which became the seventh state to pass a so-called “anti-conversion law” last year. As World Watch Monitor has reported, although ostensibly aimed at preventing “forced conversions”, in reality such laws are often used to prevent all conversions – whether by force or through free choice – and especially conversions away from Hinduism to minority religions such as Christianity.

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In Chhattisgarh, tribal leaders ask, ‘How can this be about conversion?’

Jharkhand, there have been signs of a growing Pathalgadi presence. In April this year, at least three villages in Jashpur district of the state held Pathalgadi programmes, which drew a sharp response from the BJP. Led by Prabal Singh Judeo, the son of the late BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo, state leaders, who were quick to see a “Church hand”, held a “Sadbhavna rally” in Jashpur, where a stone plaque put up by Pathalgadi supporters was brought down.

With tempers flaring, villagers clashed with the police and the administration, and were accused of holding officials hostage for a few hours. The government arrested eight people, including former IAS officer Herman Kindo and a former ONGC employee, Joseph Tigga, on May 1. Ever since, even Chief Minister Raman Singh has given several statements saying Pathalgadi was a covert attempt at conversion.

Tribal leaders in Chhattisgarh, however, dismiss this notion and say such statements reveal the lack of understanding of tribal identity. “How can this be about conversion? If somebody wants to convert to another religion, they will do it quietly; not create a ruckus so it gets found out like this. It makes no sense. This response is driven by politics,” says Arvind Netam, a tribal and former Union minister in the 70s who rejoined the Congress last month.

Netam believes there is only one reason the tribal community would feel the need to assert their Constitutional rights. “That reason is apathy. Over the last so many years, tribals have been watching as the rights given to them under our laws and the Constitution have been completely reneged on. Land is taken away without gram sabha consent, and when there is consent, it is manufactured consent, without any following of laws like the Forest Rights Act. There are issues with land titles, and there is virtually no implementation of the provisions of the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and the PESA Act, 1996. In such circumstances, tribals have chosen to remind the government of their rights by writing these down on a stone in their village. That is a crime for you?” says Netam.

He adds that the government’s reaction to the movement, both in Chhattisgarh and in Jharkhand stems from an othering of the tribal community. “They have stopped understanding who a tribal is, how close they are to their forests, their land and their customs. This is why the Constitution under PESA guarantees self-government and a recognition of traditional rights. The government has forgotten this,” says Netam.

In Chhattisgarh, the largest statewide Adivasi organisation, the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, has said it would replicate the Pathalgadi process in places other that in Northern Chhattisgarh. The president of the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, BPS Netam, also a retired IAS officer, says the government had failed to assuage the “constitutional needs of tribals.”

However, in meetings that the Samaj has held in Chhattisgarh with other social organisations and individuals, and even the government, a note of caution has emerged. “In their eagerness, on some stones, things that are unconstitutional have been written — such as, that no outsiders can enter villages. Or that the IPC or CRPC doesn’t apply. These are dangerous on two counts. One, it gives the government the chance to say that we are being unconstitutional. And second, villagers will begin to believe this. The Constitution is our strength,” says BPS Netam.

The controversy has drawn a limited response from the Chhattisgarh government. On June 11 and 12, they held a two-day “special gram sabha” across the state on the implementation of the PESA Act. The principal Opposition in the state, the Congress, has kept a nervous distance on the issue, not wanting to be drawn into a debate that helps in polarisation. Leaders have said that while they back tribal rights, they would not support anything “outside the ambit of the Constitution”.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

16 Christians detained under Jharkhand’s ‘anti-conversion law’

A group of 16 Indian tribal Christians who visited another tribal family in the eastern state of Jharkhand to talk to them about Christianity are in police custody after the local village head accused them of “conversion by inducement”.

Last year, Jharkhand became the seventh Indian state to introduce a so-called “anti-conversion law”. Although ostensibly aimed at preventing “forced conversions”, in reality such laws are often used to prevent all conversions – whether by force or through free choice – and especially conversions away from Hinduism to minority religions such as Christianity.

Two months ago, 15 Christians were arrested under the same law.

In his complaint to police, Ramesh Murmu, the village president of Phulpahari, in Dumka District, alleged that 25 unknown people entered the village in the late evening on 5 July, installed a microphone and began proselytising the tribal villagers.

A group of 25 Christian youths, volunteers from the Friends Missionary Prayer Band (FMPB), who are all also Adivasi (Sanskrit for “aboriginals”) tribals from different parts of eastern India, were on a mission to preach in the tribal hamlets.

They visited Biti Soren’s family in Phulpahari.

“We are the only Christian family here, and the FMPB group prayed for us and sang a couple of hymns, before the supporters of the village president opposed this prayer service,” Soren, who has now fled her village, told World Watch Monitor.

“[The villagers] threatened that there should not be any Christian teachings in the village,” she said, adding: “They were saying [the group’s] vehicles should be set on fire so nobody could move from here.”
‘Your religion is bad’

The first complaint submitted by the village president to police, the morning after the group’s visit, said villagers had stopped the Christians from preaching against their gods and idol worship, and had held them all hostage all night. That morning, the police took the 25 youths into custody.

“My husband only went to the police station to give a statement that we had invited the FMPB brethren to our house and that there was no attempt to forcefully convert anybody, but he too was taken into custody,” Soren told World Watch Monitor.

“I am now afraid to go back to the village, with my infant, in my husband’s absence. They instigated the villagers against Christianity. I am too scared. They tried to put me also in jail.”

“The tribals in Jharkhand are either Sarna [religion of the indigenous people] or Hindu, and the 25 Christians who entered the village were putting the tribes under pressure to convert,” Inspector Manoj Kumar of Shikaripara police station, 70km south of Phulpahari, told World Watch Monitor.

Asked what kind of pressure, Inspector Kumar said: “Firstly, they are 25 in number and entered the village at night. They belong to different parts of the country; one is from Bengal and another from elsewhere. They came to this tribal hamlet and started inducing the illiterate, innocent tribals to convert.

“They told the villagers: ‘Your religion is bad’, and that ‘Satan lives in your worship places’, and said that ‘only conversion to Christianity will do you good’. And when the villagers answered that they are happy with their own religion, then the Christians have tried a variety of ways to lure them. They were luring the villagers by telling them the advantages that conversion to Christianity can fetch.

“When the villagers told the Christians that nobody can enter our village without the president’s permission, they said that they have permission from a superior authority, far above the village president. That was the reason why they were confined that night – the villagers said: ‘Call the authority who sent you here; we will let you go if you call that person.’ And waited until it was morning and then complained to the police station.”

Asked why the Christians were held hostage by villagers, Inspector Kumar countered: “Then why had they [Christians] gone there? They were not brought from anywhere and held hostage; the Christians have themselves gone to the village, and if an unknown person enters their area and starts speaking against their faith, what else would they do?”

FMPB coordinators said: “The whole day and night of Friday, 6 July, the police kept the Christians, including the minors – against whom there was no FIR [police report], in their custody.”

Inspector Kumar told World Watch Monitor: “An FIR has been registered against 16 of the 25. The remaining seven are minors and women, and so we handed them to their families. The 16 were presented before the court and were sent to judicial custody, in Dumka Central Jail, yesterday [7 July].”

The village head’s later complaint, attached to the FIR, accused the Christians of conversions by inducement. Jharkhand’s new law, contrary to what many believe, does not criminalise conversion from one belief (including Hinduism and Sarna) to another, but does forbid inducement or allurement.

“The changes in the narrative are of serious concern. It is sad that it appears the complaint has been modified in a way to frame the Christians under the anti-conversion act,” FMPB field missionary Ramesh Velraj told World Watch Monitor.

“The missionaries are well trained, and there is no chance they would utter a word against other religions or even mention Satan. They take this job of sharing [the] gospel as their calling, and have already been to 20 other villages in the state [before visiting Phulpahari] and have been witnessing souls coming to Christ.”

Inspector Kumar alleged: “Today, 90 per cent of tribals here practise Christianity; please come and do a study of how is this happening? The Christians employ various tricks to evangelise the poor, illiterate tribals,”

Soren told World Watch Monitor: “The prayer was at our house and neighbours and relatives also gathered, so this annoyed the village president and his supporters.”
‘Vital role’

On 7 July, the day after the police arrests, members of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) held an event in the village to celebrate the court’s order that sent the 16 Christians to jail. The village president was garlanded and appreciated by key BJP and RSS leaders who attended.

Local Christians say that Jharkhand’s BJP government authorities combine together with indigenous Sarna advocates against Christian missionary work amongst the poor, rural, illiterate Adivasis. One local Christian priest, who wished to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor: “The Christian missionaries have played a vital role in bringing education to the Adivasis. They have reached even the remotest parts of Jharkhand, started good schools and propagated the love of God through various activities.”

So far, 31 Christians have been charged under section 4 of Jharkhand’s anti-conversion act, officially titled the Freedom of Religion Act, since it came into force in February.

The law passed by the state legislature punishes a person guilty of forcible conversions of a minor, woman or a person belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (members of India’s lowest caste) by imprisonment of four years and a fine up to 100,000 rupees (US$1,500). It prescribes prior permission from the district collector to convert to another faith. Local Catholic leaders, such as Prabhaakr Tirkey, said at the time that Hindu nationalists misinterpret Christian missionary services of healthcare and education as “allurement” and fraudulent means for conversions.

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20 Indian Christians hurt in attack on prayer meeting in Uttar Pradesh

Twenty Christians have been injured in an assault on a prayer meeting in India's Uttar Pradesh state, according to International Christian Concern.

Local reports say 35 Hindu radicals stormed a prayer meeting in Raikashipur village as more than 150 Christians met for prayer.

The attack took place on July 2, according to ICC, when the mob arrived at the prayer meeting in several vehicles and beat the participants with sticks. They also fired a gun into the air.

As well as injuring people they destroyed furniture and musical instruments.

Ram Kumar Gautam (42) has led the village prayer meetings in a makeshift shed for the last five years and told ICC that on average around 300 people participate.

'I didn't sleep or eat properly for nearly a week now,' he said. 'The attack on our prayer meeting last Monday has had devastating consequences. Many have serious injuries with their limbs being broken. Also, a false case was booked against six of us under stringent IPC [Indian Penal Code] sections.'

The charges relate to riot and assault, and to 'Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.'

Gautam said: 'We peacefully conduct prayers every Monday and people voluntarily attend these prayers. We don't even talk about conversions, but I am accused of converting people. People come to our prayer and get healing. That's why people choose to regularly attend the prayers.'

William Stark, ICC's regional manager, said: 'Article 25 of India's constitution says that every individual has the right to freely profess, practise and propagate the religion of their choice. For more than 150 Christians, this right was violated last Monday when Hindu radicals assaulted them for merely practising their faith.

'India's authorities must bring these 35 Hindu radicals in Raikashipur to justice. Until then, India's religious freedom rights will remain only words on paper and attacks on Christians and other religious minorities will continue to rise in both number and severity.'

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Saturday, July 07, 2018

Christians played no role in India's freedom struggle: BJP MP Gopal Shetty

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Mumbai North Gopal Shetty has stoked a controversy recently stating Christians did not contribute to the freedom struggle and also called them 'angrez' (foreigners).

The BJP MP also claimed that it was only the Hindus and the Muslims who played a role in India's freedom struggle.

"Christians were British, hence they didn't participate in India's freedom struggle. India was not freed by Hindus or Muslims, we fought as one for our independence," he can be heard as saying in the video.

Shetty made the controversial remark while addressing a gathering during the Eid-e-Milad organized by the Shia Kabrastan Committee at Malad's Malvani here on Sunday. 

When asked about the controversial remark he said that his statement has been misinterpreted. But has offered his resignation to the state party president Raosaheb Patil Danve. 

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