Having spent a month in jail on baseless charges before his release on bail, Pastor R Kirubendran was baffled at hostilities from police, media and villagers after serving a community in northern India without problem for several years.
An explanation likely lies in the pattern of false accusations by Hindu extremists, followed by church closures, in Ghazipur District, Uttar Pradesh state where he and his wife served.
Accused of forcible conversion and insulting religion, Pastor Kirubendran was released on May 24 after four failed attempts to secure bail. His wife, Manju Tiruvendram, and 18-month-old daughter spent 13 days in jail before being released on bail on May 6.
Pastor Kirubendran said he was shocked and puzzled at the charges after serving in the town of Kasimabad for six years without incident.
"Everything was very smooth and cordial, until suddenly that Sunday [April 23] the crowd was hurling accusations on us," he told Morning Star News. "The villagers had never opposed us since the time we started worshipping here till now."
Kirubendran and Tiruvendram have provided free education for the village since 2017, with 60 children attending. Holding classes Monday to Saturday for two hours, they taught according to the area school's syllabus.
"I wanted to educate them," Pastor Kirubendran said. "Families who have money send their children to coaching classes by paying hefty fees. What about the poor children? My wife and I had a lot of burden for the education of the poor children, so we wanted to teach them."
They also provided guidance and other help to villagers, his wife said.
"We have no money, so we could not help them financially, but we advised them whenever they asked for it, and we also stood by them; if they had to take someone to the hospital in emergency, we went with them," Tiruvendram said.
About 90 people attended the church, but resuming services now is not possible, the pastor said.
"The person from whom we had rented the house has blocked the entrance of the church with a bamboo mesh," Pastor Kirubendran said. "Those who have complained against us, they are high-caste people. They are the rich and affluent. My life can get in danger, I must stay safe and keep a low profile. We will have to prove that we are not guilty but are innocent."
Attacks Every Week
Police and villagers descended on the family after services had ended on April 23 – as has happened to churches throughout the district, said attorney and rights activist Dinanath Jaiswar.
"In the month of April, churches were attacked in Ghazipur District every Sunday," Jaiswar told Morning Star News. "Local right-wing groups identified each church in the district and prepared a list. According to the list, they attacked churches and, levying false allegation of forced conversion, sent the pastors to jail. In this way they have been successful in shutting down the churches in the district."
The number of incidents in Uttar Pradesh rose steeply following implementation of the state law against forcible or fraudulent conversion. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, originated as Ordinance 2020 that came into effect on Nov. 27, 2020.
From December 2020 through May, 234 people have been arrested and jailed under the statute, none convicted, Jaiswal said, and this year he has recorded 115 anti-Christian incidents in Uttar Pradesh from January until June, he said.
Charged and Jailed
"We came to north India with a lot of burden to serve the Lord, but landed up in jail despite doing nothing wrong," said Tiruvendram, 32, of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, who came with her now 33-year-old husband to Kasimabad six years ago.
Kasimabad police arrested the couple, their daughter and a female church member soon after Sunday worship in a rented accommodation in Barapur village, a little more than a mile from their home.
A group of 10 mainly high-caste Hindus along with about 20 policemen in four vehicles arrived at the site of their Indian Pentecostal Church.
One of the group members asked who led worship, and as soon as Pastor Kirubendran answered, they began to hurl accusations of forcible conversion at him and his church, he said. Officers asked the Christians about their activities and organization, and they replied that they met there for prayer, worship and also taught underprivileged children.
The crowd continued to assert that the couple moved from Coimbatore to forcefully convert the villagers.
"We did not retaliate or speak back harshly, but humbly answered all their questions," Tiruvendram said.
Police took the church key and unlocked the house to search for evidence, confiscating Bibles, songbooks and two diaries – one having the record of children who attended the informal school, and the other Pastor Kirubendran's sermon book, he said.
The other woman detained was a Christian before the couple moved to the area in 2016. While officers drove her and the pastor's family to the Kasimabad police station, they stopped their vehicles at the insistence of a crowd at another church led by Pastor Ramesh Masih about a mile from the couple's church site.
"The Sunday service was still going on when we stopped at Ramesh's church," Tiruvendram said. "The rest of the police vehicles waited there, while our vehicle took us to the police station."
While police interrogated Pastor Kirubendran inside the station, two news reporters arrived and also began to question him and his wife, he said.
"The media persons rigorously questioned me for almost two hours," the pastor told Morning Star News. "They picked every word that I said and asked me hundreds of questions, like where have I come from? What am I doing in this village? And why did we come here, and so on."
The police released the other female church member after her husband intervened and told the police that they were local residents.
Soon the officers who had stopped at Pastor Masih's church arrived with him and seven or eight members of his congregation. Police had confiscated songbooks, Bibles, literature and New Testaments from Pastor Masih's church and questioned him about the books, Pastor Kirubendran said.
Police registered a complaint against Pastor Kirubendran, his wife, Pastor Masih and two of his church members in First Information Report (FIR) No. 0065 under Indian Penal Code sections for "deliberately insulting religion," "provoking to breach peace," "criminal intimidation" and, under the Uttar Pradesh 2021 statute, unlawful conversion.
Eldho K. Mani, head of the India Pentecostal Church, Gazipur, said he was disheartened that he was about 100 kilometers away (62 miles) at the time of the arrest.
"It was very unfortunate, and I could not come to their rescue," Pastor Mani said.
Pastor Kirubendran said he was amazed that the message that he had delivered at the service that morning was from Philippians. 4:4-9, about rejoicing in the Lord, prayer and peace.
"I told my congregation that day how we can rejoice in the Lord always – our rejoicing does not depend upon our circumstances, but upon our relationship with the Lord. Knowing that our identity is in the Lord...that is how we can rejoice in any and every circumstance," he said. "For the first two weeks, my own message and these verses were encouraging me – that I have to continue to rejoice in the Lord, whatever my circumstances be, the Lord is with me."
When Pastor Kirubendran's daughter fell sick while incarcerated, it broke his heart – he wept before the Lord and pleaded to God to save his daughter, he said. He added that he was allowed to meet his wife and daughter once a week on Sundays.
After Tiruvendram was released on bail, she visited her husband in jail and wept, deeply troubling him. Anxiety over the future and concern for his family overwhelmed him as he wondered how he would face the case against him, how to pay for legal costs and what might be happening to his wife and child, he said.
"When I could not get bail, my heart became very sad," Pastor Kirubendran said. "Initially I always prayed that the Lord would grant the bail, but my bail plea was repeatedly rejected. I changed my prayer to, 'Lord, whether I get the bail or not, let my faith stay steadfast.'"
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, 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' 2023 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.
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