Churches in India ordered to stop worship services amid fresh crackdown

A protester holds a placard during a rally in Mumbai, India by hundreds of Christians against attacks on churches nationwide.Reuters

Police and officials in the Tamil Nadu state in India have ordered 10 churches to halt worship services, according to Morning Star India.

Local church leaders said that Hindu extremists compelled state officials and police to issue orders to the churches in the Coimbatore district to stop worship unless they obtain permission from the district's official 'collector's office'. According to the report, extremists reportedly intend to target 20 other churches in the same way.

'It is a well-planned conspiracy against the Christian community, as the Hindu extremists know that it is not easy to approach the collector's office for such permissions,' said pastor Johnson Sathyanathan, president of the Synod of Pentecostal Churches of Coimbatore. He told Morning Star India: 'The time to get such approvals can stretch from a year and a half to many more years.'

The district revenue officer confirmed to church leaders that orders against six churches were issued after complaints by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group widely regarded as the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Orders were reportedly also issued in one case based on a complaint by the Hanuman Sena, a relatively new Hindu extremist group.

A Christian delegation met the minister of internal affairs of Tamil Nadu last week to express concerns about the developments. The state minister on October 24 called on the deputy superintendent of police and the local member of the legislative assembly of Sulur to investigate the matter and take steps to ensure that the worship services can resume, pastor Sathyanathan said.

'Altogether there are 10 churches that have been directly affected in the last two months,' he added. 'They are all residents of the area, and people have never had trouble with these churches before. These pastors have been doing ministry for many years now.'

Another congregation, an Assemblies of God Church in Thennampalayam, was first targeted during its vacation Bible school this summer, when the members of RSS attacked its van transporting children, assaulting three young people. The revenue officer closed down the church based on a complaint by the RSS, saying the pastor must secure permission from the collector to continue worshipping. The pastor had been leading the church at that location for more than five years.

India ranked 15th on Open Doors' 2017 World Watch List of the countries where Christians experience the most persecution.

Since prime minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, the hostile tone of his National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against non-Hindus has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians, according to religious rights advocates.