India: Andhra Pradesh becoming hotbed of anti-Christian violence


Church leaders in India are alarmed over a dramatic increase in attacks on Christians in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where in recent weeks one pastor has been murdered, others beaten, and churches demolished.

The All India Christian Council documented 72 incidents of anti-Christian violence and hostility in Andhra Pradesh in 2013, nearly double the 39 recorded in 2012. Today the state, India's fifth-most populous, has the country's highest rate of anti-Christian incidents, according to the All India Christian Council.

"The jump from 39 incidents in 2012 to 72 incidents in 2013 is alarming, and the reasons for this escalated growth on the Christian minorities is the culmination of every effort of the right-wing political party to woo the majority of the communal agenda in the coming election of 2014," Moses Vatipalli, a project coordinator for the All India Christian Council, told WWM.

India's "communal agenda" arises from the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's promotion of "a clear vision of India's civilizational consciousness", which it says "has its roots in Bharatiya or Hindu world view". In that view, according to the party, "almost all religions practised in different parts of the world have existed peacefully in India and will continue to do so".

The reality is somewhat different. The BJP is the ruling party in three of the five Indian states with laws that forbid forced religious conversions — laws that frequently are used to shut down churches or intimidate Christians who speak about their faith. The party has proposed stiffer penalties in one of those states, Madhya Pradesh, India's second-largest.

Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, another BJP-ruled state with anti-conversion laws on the books, is "the poster child for India's failure to punish the violent," said Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Commissioner Mary Ann Glendon in a joint November opinion column.

While under BJP rule, Karnataka state had the country's highest rate of attacks against Christians from 2010 through 2012. In early 2013 the Indian National Congress Party took over; the number of attacks dropped from 50 in 2012 to 28 in 2013, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians.

The BJP holds only two of the 294 seats in the Andhra Pradesh State Assembly, but has been making inroads across India, including advances in two state assemblies during December elections. National parliamentary elections are scheduled for May, and Narendra Modi is the BJP's candidate for prime minister.

Meanwhile, pressure on Christians continues.

On December 28 in the town of Narketpally in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh, Suverthamma Moses responded to a late-night knock at the door and was struck on the head with an iron bar, then stabbed. When her husband, Nama Moses, a Baptist pastor, rushed in, he was stabbed multiple times.

"The attack took less than 10 minutes while three extremists were standing outside the house. The neighbours later came to their rescue and rushed them to the Kameneni Hospital," Franklin Sudharkar, General Secretary of the All India Christian Council, told World Watch Monitor.

Moses and his wife survived the attack. Sudharkar said the Hindu Vahini, a nationalist youth organization suspected in the December 28 stabbings, have severely injured at least six pastors in Andhra Pradesh.

On January 10 in Vakirabad town, armed Hindu Vanihi militants knocked at the door of Hebron Church pastor O Sanjeevi's house, then hit his wife with an iron rod after she opened the door. The attackers stabbed Pastor Sanjeevi eight times. He died three days later, leaving behind his wife and four children.

"About 250 church members he looked after felt bewildered and deprived by the incident," an area church leader, Reverend Madhusudan Das, of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told World Watch Monitor.

In response to the killing, the Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches petitioned the state chief minister and the National Human Rights Commission of India to improve protection for Christians.

On New Year's Eve, extremists in the town of Rajamundry set fire to a worship centre operated by a church named Dr John Wesley of Young Holy Team, after the church members had conducted a night service.

And the morning of February 2, a Sunday, the Bethel Gospel church building in Hyderabad, a western district of Andhra Pradesh, was burned to ashes.