Persecution of Christians in India continued to rise last year, according to a report compiled by the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
The RLC recorded 325 incidents where Christians had been targeted using violence, intimidation or harassment, a rise from 130 in 2012.
'More than the numbers, what is disturbing is the sudden spurt of violence in a few districts of Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous province, and in Tamil Nadu in the extreme south of the subcontinent,' the report said.
It acknowledged that its data was not exhaustive as it relied on voluntary reporting and civil society investigations. 'Most cases go unreported either because the victim and witnesses are terrified, or the police, especially in the northern states, just turn a blind eye and refuse to record the mandatory First Information Report of the crime,' it said.
The forthcoming general election to be held in April-May, in which the ruling BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under pressure, has contributed to religious tension. The report says hate speeches by politicians have 'acted as a catalyst' in dividing people along religious, ethnic and linguistic lines. The Christian community has been a 'collateral victim' alongside the larger Muslim community, the report argues.
Among the incidents the report describes is an attack in Dalsingsarai village, Samstipur, Bihar, where the house of Pastor Jitendra Kumar was attacked by villagers who were led by local Hindu right-wing leaders. The attackers broke the steel gate of the house and the pastor's son and local Christians were beaten so badly that some had to be hospitalized. The pastor and his family were taken to the police station where they were questioned and later let go. The police told the pastor to stop Christian activities and the family left the area in fear.
More than 40 per cent of the incidents (132) took place in Uttar Pradesh, making it the most hostile state for Christians. The state also recorded the most incidents of sectarian violence in India during the last four years, at 645. Incidents directed at Christians spiked between September and December, with 94 recorded; there were only 50 during the whole of 2017.
The report blames the spike on 'clearly one-sided' accounts of large-scale fraudulent conversions of Hindus that went viral on social media from July 2018. 'These accusations were followed by police charges which was then followed by multiple area reports of disrupted worship meetings, pastors and evangelists arrested and Christian leaders fleeing their homes to avoid arrest,' it said.
Following a 'media disinformation' campaign, police and members of right-wing Hindu groups raided churches and interrogated pastors and leaders.
Among the types of action against Christians were arrests, the disruption of services, false accusations and arrests, physical violence, threats and vandalism. At least two Christians have been murdered and others have been subjected to hate campaigns.
Among other recommendations for the government, the RLC report urges it to enact comprehensive national legislation against targeted and communal violence, to prosecute police officers who fail to enforce the law and train them in religious freedom issues.