Hope and sorrow in India

(Photo: Unsplash/Ishan ansari)

The photo attached to this article is of a small church in Solapur, western India, led by Pastor Abraham Gavit. He gave me permission to use this photo. Over the Easter weekend four people from the fellowship were baptized. It was a reminder to me that regardless of the persecution, God is still at work and peoples' faith is growing!

Not just persecution, but murder

In Chhattisgarh's Bijapur District, the Communist Party of India (CPI) published a notice listing 22 local Christian 'pastors' who the CPI (Maoists) demanded should 'leave pastorship of the Christian faith propagating enemy culture', warning that failure to comply would result in action being taken against them. The notice also directed locals to 'Worship the tribal gods and goddesses; Oppose Christian Religion'.

The region is predominantly populated by the animistic Gond tribe which is, with a population of more than 12 million,  the largest tribe in India. To win the Gond vote, the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) incites hatred of Christianity and presents Christianity as an existential threat and the anti-conversion BJP as the solution.

It is possible the Gond are using their Maoist/Naxalite contacts to eliminate Christian 'pastors' suspected of 'propagating Christianity'.

The Gond - whose language is Dravidian (from south India) - are spread throughout Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, a region which for centuries was known as the Kingdom of Gondwana. In the last Assembly elections, the BJP recorded its worst performance in a decade in the reserved seats in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

Downtrodden and exploited under the racist Hindu caste system, many Gond have been drawn into the anti-Hindu Maoist/Naxalite insurgency that has plagued the 'Red Corridor' of north-east India for decades. While tribal Christians oppose all forms of violence, they have long been allies of the tribal animists in the struggle against the racist Hindu caste system and Hindu-Aryan domination and exploitation.

On 17 March Maoist/Naxalite militants executed Pastor Yalam Shankar (58). A senior pastor and former village chief, Pastor Shankar's name was second on the list. The killers left a Hindi-language note on Pastor Shankar's body which read: 'The police informer of Angampalli village Yalam Shankar is killed at the hands of our PLGA.' [PLGA: People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, the armed wing of the banned CPI (Maoist).]

Military style

The killing has all the traits of a professional military-style execution, indicating it was indeed the work of Maoist insurgents and not Hindu nationalist thugs. However, the claimed pretext - that the pastor was a police informant - is not credible. The local police chief denied that Shankar was ever an informer. Local Christians also deny it.

"Pastor Yalam Shankar's death is the consequence of not denying his Christian faith and for propagating Christ in this area. A false veil has been put on Pastor Yalam Shankar's murder and calling him a police informer is an eye-wash."

There are areas in Chhattisgarh state where local councils work with Maoists, known as Naxalites, to rid areas of Christianity, a source said after relatives threatened to kill a pastor in 2019. Tribal animists enlist Maoist militants to kill Christians who refuse to recant, the source said. Naxalites shot an Adivasi Christian from Narayanpur District to death in February 2019.

The hostile tone against non-Hindus of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, 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.

In another incident, Pastor Tirki was leading worship for 25 Christian families, comprising 65 believers of the Kanwar tribe in Bagiya village, Jashpur district, in Chhattisgarh's far north-east, when a mob of Hindu nationalists stormed the service and began assaulting and abusing the congregation.

Agents of the Hindu nationalist VHP reported the situation leading the police to arrest and jail Pastor Tirki and Jyoti Prakash Toppo on the charge of attempting to procure illegal religious conversions. Pastor Tirki denies the charge, insisting anyone who converts does so of their own free will. 'Our work,' he said, 'is to impart the Bible's teachings.'

India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2022 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, as it was in 2021. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.

India needs our prayers

Please pray that God will sustain and provide for Pastor Yalam Shankar's family; may they be assured of the eternal presence of the God of all comfort. Pray for Pastor Tirki and Jyoti Prakash Toppo, that they may stand strong in the peace that passes all understanding.

Pray also that God would intervene in the north India tribal belt - to ensure that pastors and evangelists are afforded protection, criminals are brought to justice, and Hindu nationalist lies - in particular the lie that Christians (rather than the BJP) are the enemy - are exposed as political machinations aimed at dividing and conquering the people so as to enable further exploitation of the tribals and their lands.

Continue to pray that God will send his angels to guide and protect the 21 remaining 'pastors' named on that list; may not one be lost, for India needs her missionaries.