The truth about Christian persecution in India – and it's not what you think

With more than 28 million believers, India is home to one of the world's largest Christian populations.

Yet in the context of the second most populous country on earth, Christians make up just 2.3 per cent. And they are a minority increasingly under pressure.

Christians pray at a church in Kolkata.Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

The faith arrived in India 2,000 years ago, introduced by Thomas the Apostle according to legend. But despite its long history and deep roots in the country's culture and national structures, Christianity in India is under attack.

Under Prime Minister Modi's Hindu nationlist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the extremist right-wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Christian persecution has rocketed.

A snapshot of headlines from this website in the past two months alone reveals stories of Indian Christians beaten and kicked out of village for refusing to recant their faith, and an Indian pastor murdered in drive-by shooting after receiving multiple death threats.

Reflecting this reality Open Doors' World Watch List, which monitors the most dangerous countries to be a Christian, has seen India gradually climb the ranks over the past four years.

The watchdog estimates a church is burnt down or a pastor beaten on average 10 times a week India in 2016 – a threefold increase on the previous year.

'There is a clear pattern of rising religious intolerance across the Indian sub-continent, which affects many millions of Christians,' said CEO Lisa Pearce.

'Religious nationalists attempt to forcibly convert people to the dominant faith of their nation, often turning to violence when community discrimination and non-violent oppression do not succeed in imposing their religious beliefs on minority Christians.'

Bishop Joseph D'Souza has emerged as a leading Christian voice after being consecrated as Moderator Bishop and the primate of the Good Shepherd Church of India as well as being founder of the Dalit Freedom Network and founding president of the ecumenical All India Christian Council.

Joseph D'Souza is founder and International President of the Dalit Freedom Network, an inter­caste and inter­racial alliance that works on behalf of the Dalits (sometimes called ‘untouchables’) and other poor and marginalized groups.

While critical of Hindu extremists, D'Souza is deeply respectful of the religion itself and says the faith has been hijacked.

Speaking to Christian Today at New Wine, an evangelical Christian festival in Somerset, he warns violent attacks on Christians and other faiths have 'marred the image of Hinduism all over the world'.

D'Souza says his main fear is mob rule with Hindu extremist factions all over India attacking pastors and burning their buildings. Modi has made several public commitments to free speech and D'Souza called on him to put this into action by prosecuting the perpertrators.

But as well as fringe groups, state parliaments are India are debating controversial anti-conversion laws which would mean anyone converting someone to a different religion through 'force or allurement' could face three years in jail.

Already in force in six states with Jharkhand is in eastern India due to start debating their equivalent today, Modi's BJP says it offers protection against Christian missionaries targeting poorer communities with offers of education, money or other benefits.

The high-profile case of Compassion India being forced to abandon more than 50 projects and around 145,000 children and leave the country partially rested on accusations of proselytism.

D'Souza says the idea Christians are forcing people to convert is nonsense.

'With all of these Christians [in India], there have been no convictions because it is impossible to show that adult people have been induced by income, profit, health or education,' he tells Christian Today.

'The state is effectively now taking a stance on a persons choice.'

But he is surprisingly sympathetic to the BJP's motivations.

'While Christianity did a lot of good to India, there was the colonial Christian baggage that we have to look at,' he explains.

At the heart of the BJP's Hindu nationalism is a concern for the unity and integrity of India.

The overwhelming fear is of another split, like the 1947 partition to form the Pakistan-India border that left more than 1 million people dead in savage inter-communal rioting and massacres. 

'At the heart of the colonial baggage is the dis-membership of India based on religion,' he says.

'Unfortunately movements for independence are in the north where there are also many Christians.

'What right-wing Hindu groups in India fear is if Christians grow there will be another Pakistan.'

But he insists Indian Christians like himself want to be part of a unified India. 'We never again want another Pakistan.

'Extremist elements of Hinduism have to be very careful they themselves do not polarise India on the basis of religion.'

But even if Indian Christians convince their Hindu neighbours of their patriotism, it is unclear whether the persecution will stop. In office since 2014, Modi's government has overseen the installation of Christian abuse deep within the Indian system.

School textbooks contain slurs and the attacks don't stop at a highly organised, religiously motivated level but seep into local village life.

Unless there is a sharp turnaround, in the long run Christianity in India is in trouble.