Fears of more attacks against India's Christians ahead of elections
Weeks before millions of Indians head to the polls in the world's largest democratic election, Release International has warned that attacks on the country's Christians are likely to increase.
India is home to 28 million Christians, around 2 per cent of the population, but they are facing increasing hostility.
Two Christians were murdered in February by Maoist rebels, one in Odisha and the other in Chhattisgarh. However, there are reports that in addition to extremists, the authorities are also perpetrating violence against Christians, with four women and two men recently arrested during a Sunday service in Uttar Pradesh.
Those rounded up included the female pastor, Sindhu Bharti, who was reportedly beaten unconscious at the police station, with a witness saying that scalding tea was poured into her mouth because the officers thought she was faking it. The Christians have been charged with intent to offend religious feelings, defiling a place of worship and rioting.
According to the latest figures from the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, 77 incidents of hatred and violence against Christians were recorded in the first two months of 2019 alone, up from 49 in the same period last year.
The EFI believes that a systematic campaign is being waged against Christians in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where 40 per cent of the 325 attacks on Indian Christians last year took place. Their report warns that disruption of church services is commonplace and attacks are growing in frequency in the state.
In Tamil Nadu, police and radical Hindus have reportedly gone door-to-door telling Christians not to meet for worship. Some Christians have been ordered to leave their churches.
Release International, which works with persecuted Christians worldwide, fears that a rise in rightwing extremism and the elections in April, in which up to 900 million Indians will cast their votes, are only going to make the situation worse for Christians.
'With elections pending, Release International warns violence is likely to increase against India's Christians,' said Paul Robinson, CEO of Release.
During a recent visit to India, he met one pastor named only as Steeven, who said he was beaten by militants after he applied to the local court for permission to build a church.
'Seven people beat him up outside the court with rods and sticks. Then they took him to an animal shed, kicked him, gave him an electric shock and partially strangled him with rope. Finally, they took him to a Hindu temple, beat him again and forced him to sign over the land he had bought for the church building,' said Mr Robinson.
He continued: 'Members of the ruling Hindu Nationalist BJP have threatened Pastor Steeven to leave the area or they will kill him. Such attacks are growing increasingly common. And violence is expected to rise ahead of Indian elections later this year.
'Release is calling for prayer and support for Christians such as Pastor Steeven, who face intimidation and oppression for the sake of the gospel.'