Beaten and abused for their faith in Jesus: Christian persecution in India
Hundreds of thousands of Christians across India are faced with a sobering ultimatum: hide their faith, or risk harassment, intimidation, and even death.
Threats against churches, arson attacks on Christian property, and the harassment and violent abuse of new converts to Christianity are all on the rise in India, where just 2.3 per cent of the population identifies with the faith.
Two young women who have experienced such persecution are Meena, 32, and her 25-year-old sister, Sunita (names have been changed to protect identity).
They were severely beaten by a group of men from their village in Odisha state after news spread that they had converted to Christianity. Remarkably, they praise God for their experiences.
"We knew about persecution in theory because the Bible speaks about it," Meena told researchers for Christian persecution charity Open Doors. "And when it happened, we thanked God for it."
The sisters came to faith though a Christian radio show in 2004, and initially felt compelled to hide their conversion for fear of repercussions from local Hindu hard-liners. Two years later, though, they were baptised and began to attend church services. "My faith had grown stronger and I thought, 'If I die, I will be resurrected,'" Meena explained.
However, about a year later locals held a meeting and decided that Christians were not welcome in their village. They called the sisters' father, and pressurised him to force the women out of the house. He refused, but stopped paying for their food and clothing.
"We had to take care of ourselves," Meena recalled. "The entire village rejected us, but we were blessed by the Lord."
Then a few months ago, Meena, Sunita and two other Christian women were stopped by a group of Hindus while picking berries in their village. They were told they could no longer use the main road or draw from the well, and were forced to escape to a nearby hill. For almost eight hours they sat terrified, as shouts of "Burn them!" Burn them!" resounded.
Eventually they went to stay with Christians in another village, and police officers arranged a "peace meeting" with those who had harassed them.
However when they returned home, locals immediately arrived at the sisters' house and dragged them outside. It was then that they were heavily beaten with bamboo sticks.
"They broke at least five or six of them on my back. My sister tried to protect me, but she couldn't. I just cried out to God, 'Thank you, Lord! Jesus, please forgive them. They don't know what they do!'" Meena said. She remembers one of her assailants responding: "We know about Jesus. He died on a cross and so will you."
"I just prayed that God's will be done, no matter what. Sure, the beating was painful, but inside I felt a tremendous joy. I was worthy to suffer for Jesus," Meena told Open Doors. "God gives us strength."
Sunita remembers praying until she lost consciousness during the beating, and when she woke up she saw a bone protruding from her wrist. She managed to crawl away and hide in a shed, praying incessantly to God: "I can die or I can witness. Make me a weapon, Lord. Make me a witness for you."
The sisters were eventually cared for by a Christian family in another village, but they remain in hiding and are provided with food and other necessities by Open Doors.
"I thank the Lord for persecution," Meena said. "God had warned us in advance that it would come and that he would take care of us. We were prepared... The gospel was theory for us, but when persecution comes and you don't backslide but witness for the Lord, you know it is for real. You help us stand strong."
The rise of Hindu nationalism
Though religious freedom is guaranteed by India's constitution, the reality for believers on the ground – as evidenced by Meena, Sunita and countless other like them – is sadly far removed from the promises enshrined in law.
In its annual report released in May, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlighted a "negative trajectory" with regards to religious freedom in India.
"Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups," it said.
"Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tacitly supported these groups and used religiously-divisive language to further inflame tensions. These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity, where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously-motivated crimes occur."
The BJP is the political wing of the powerful Hindu nationalist NGO Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known as the RSS. The World Hindu Council, Vishwa Hindu Parishad is the religious wing, which uses nationalist ideology to promote Hinduvata – equating being Indian with having a Hindu faith. Boasting almost seven million members, it regularly holds "reconversion" programmes, where Indian minority communities are encouraged to turn to Hinduism. The group has claimed that conversion to faiths other than Hinduism, including Christianity, is "the root of terrorism".
In the three months after President Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, nearly 2,000 branches of the RSS were established. In the first year of his rule, there was a rise in hate speech against religious minorities from senior people within these organisations, and a surge in attacks – more than 600 cases of violence between May 2014 and May 2015, the majority of them against Muslims, and at least 43 deaths.
Speaking to Christian Today earlier this month, a country expert for persecution charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide said he'd been told during a recent trip to India that Christians were being attacked every single day, and the situation shows no sign of getting better while Modi is in power.
In fact, Britain and the US have been accused of being too soft on the Indian government's poor human rights record in return for good trade deals.
Open Doors is launching an advocacy campaign, encouraging people to write to the Indian High Commission and raise concerns for Christians in India with Modi's government.
A spokesperson from the charity said: "The Indian constitution assures all citizens of the right to 'profess, practise and propagate any religion', but Christians in India are frequently denied this right – hundreds of Christians have been violently attacked this year alone for their faith.
"This is why we are asking people to write to the Indian High Commission to urge them to raise our concerns with the Indian government. It is vital that we raise our voices on behalf of Christians in many parts of India who are facing discrimination, violence and even death simply for choosing to follow Jesus."
For more information about the campaign, click here.