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Mobs reportedly seek to enforce India’s anti-conversion laws

A Catholic clergyman was detained at a local police station in India after a mob demanded that he be charged with violating the country’s anti-conversion laws. The incident was one of several in recent weeks that have ended with beatings or destruction of property.

The Rev. Joseph Amuthkani was accused of conducting illegal missionary activity alongside a religious sister in Thandla. Crux News reports that he was traveling to a settlement in the area to celebrate Mass, but he, the sister and their driver were taken to a police station after a group of Hindus accused them of violating the law.

While the sister and the driver were released, Amuthkani was detained and a crowd gathered near the station.

Crux continues:

As [the Rev. Peter] Kharadi describes the scene, the Hindu group demanded that Amuthkani be charged with a criminal offense under the anti-conversion law, while the Christian contingent insisted upon the priest’s release. After several hours and confusing indications from police officials, Amuthkani eventually was released in the early evening – according to Kharadi, he was carried to the local parish on their shoulders amid songs of thanksgiving.

“I was detained for around seven hours,” Amuthkani told Crux. “Thousands of [Christians] were outside the police station, asking for my release, and there were around 25 right-wing elements also there.”

“All the time I was praying for peace, that they may not fight each other,” Amuthkani said. “The situation was very tense and people on both sides were agitated.”

The incident wasn’t the only anti-conversion incident to happen in recent weeks. Members of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Shirpur Vishwa Mandal Sevashram were reportedly surrounded and attacked at a railway station in Sangli. Sabrang India reports:

The group were going to Belagavi for an exchange of educational and social work experience there with the village level animators of Jana Jagaran Sanstha, Belagavi. Accordingly, on the morning of 16th January 2023, they started their journey from Shirpur District Dhule, Maharashtra to Belagavi by Goa Express (Nizamuddin Vasco Express) at 11.40 am.

As has been provided in the complaint, the group was sitting in coach number S6. Around 9.30 pm to 10 pm, near the Sangli railway station, some young men suddenly entered their coach, and started beating upthe group members while they were sleeping. They were asking questions such as, “Are you going for conversion?”. They were also repeatedly asking after Father Rodrigues.

As the mob got to know that the group members were a part of the Adivasi community, they started abusing them and uttering slurs. In addition to verbal abuse, the group members were also subjected to physical abuse. The mob used a walking stick, belonging to a disabled teacher Tara Singh ChaitramPawara, and steel kadas (bangles) to hit the group members.

Immediately after reaching Sangali railway station, the mob dragged some of the group members out of the train and took GunilalPawara to the railway police stationed standing at platform of Sangali Railway station. The police asked whether any quarrel had taken place.

After getting to know the reason of the quarrel, the police questioned the mobregarding who they were, to which they replied they were locals. Post this, the culprits ran away from the spot.

The group then boarded the train again. On reaching the Belagavi railway station at around 1 am, the catholic group was surrounded by forty young men and was detained by the Belagavi railway police after getting down from the train. The railway police brought the group out of the station to the compound and handed them over to the Belagavi police. The police made all the member sit on the ground and questioned them. The questions ranged from asking where the group was travelling from, the purpose of their travel and the kind of education they were engaged in.

The police then gave protection to the group while they travelled to the premises of the Jan Jagran Training Centre within the St. Paul’s campus at Camp, Belagavi. As the group was travelling, they noticed that one of the teachers, BansilalShikarsingPawara, was missing in the group, and the group members claimed that he had been abducted by the mob that had attacked them. As the member informed the police that were accompany them, a police car went in search of the missing teacher. About half an hour later, Bansilal was dropped by two unknown men on a motor cycle, who then fled from the spot.

The district police inspector, who was accompanying the group, questioned Bansilal about his disappearance. Bansilal then informed that some men had closed his mouth and dragged him to a dark place after taking away his bag and shawl. The mob had then placed a sword on his throat and pointed a knife tohis stomach with the aim of forcing a false narrative out of him that the group members were being brought by force for conversion while the mob recorded the same. Bansilal had refused to give a false statement. He was then driven to a dark place near a bridge, close to the railway station, and threatened to be kill off if he did not comply, but Bansilal did not change his statement. After that, two members from the mob took him on a motor cycle and dropped him near the catholic group and fled away.

The Washington Post reports about a December incident:

Over two decades of practicing and proselytizing Christianity, Badinath Salam had been kicked out of his home several times and often harassed. But in December, he recalled, the vitriol turned virulent.

Leaders in his Indigenous Indian village beat drums to summon all 100 households to a clearing, he said. There, gathered villagers pummeled their Christian neighbors, who made up one-fifth of their village, and left Salam hospitalized for three days.

When the drumbeats began again a week later, on Jan. 9, Salam ran for his life. In this part of central India, he wasn’t the only Christian forced to flee.

Since December, Hindu vigilantes in Chhattisgarh state in eastern India, enraged by the spread of Christianity and rallied by local political leaders, have assaulted and displaced hundreds of Christian converts in dozens of villages and left a trail of damaged churches, according to interviews with local Christians and activists and as seen during a recent trip to the area.

A January report from Christianity Today tells a similar story:

Weeks of coordinated attacks on tribal Christians in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have left nearly 1,500 people homeless and traumatized. Right-wing Hindu residents in the Bastar division of the state have chased Christians from their homes and vandalized and demolished their houses and churches, enraged that their neighbors have refused to reject their faith.

“Accusing us of following a foreign religion, and leaving the tribal culture, they gave us a choice either to recant our faith or leave our homes and our village, never to return,” said Dhruw.

While India’s tribal communities have already faced centuries of discrimination and marginalization, Christian tribals suffer additional ostracization.

Nearly 400 incidents of violence against Christians have been documented by the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF) in the past three years. Even before the violence began to escalate in earnest starting, a 2021 report from the Religious Liberty Commission of Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) documented that Chhattisgarh already had the second highest number of persecution incidents of Christians after Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state.

In Bastar, this aggression came to a head in November, when Hindu right-wing groups organized mahapanchayats (regional council meetings) and began ruling and passing measures designed to evict Christians from their communities. The councils banned Christians from worshiping within their own homes, prevented pastors from visiting Christian families in the village, and forbade local believers from carrying out their rituals like weddings or burying their dead in the village. They also restricted Christians from buying or selling goods and from working.

The Post’s report says that on Jan. 2 a group broke into a Catholic church in Narayanpur and smashed the church’s statues and stained glass windows. In another reported incident, a group of hundreds tore down a church. The Post offers this background:

For a century, the poor, Indigenous tribes that lived here outside India’s caste-based society, worshiping trees and rivers rather than the Hindu pantheon, were seen as ripe for conversion by Catholic missions that gradually took root.

But in the past two decades, residents and outside experts say, religious tensions have escalated after a new wave of evangelical missionaries swept in from south India and abroad, prompting a backlash from local leaders and Hindu nationalists, who also have gained traction.

Nandini Sundar, a sociologist at the Delhi School of Economics, said the increase in conversions to Christianity in Bastar was part of the same global evangelical movement that has achieved rapid growth in other countries, including the United States and Brazil.

“Except here, Christians are in the minority, and they get beat up, and the Hindutva fundamentalists have state support,” she said, using a term for Hindu nationalist ideology. “There is aggressive fundamentalism from both sides, and it’s being played out through these villagers.”

The latest available government statistics, from 2011, show only 1.9 percent of Chhattisgarh state is Christian, in line with the 2.3 percent, or 28 million people, across all of India who are Christians.

But that may be an underestimate, because the government counts only people who identify themselves as Christian in official documents. In Bastar, the true number of Christian believers — or “vishwasi,” as they call themselves — may be closer to a fifth of the population, say activists on both sides of the Christian-Hindu divide.

The anti-conversion attacks are not new. A 2021 New York Times article interviewed an organizer who helps coordinate anti-Christian activities:

Dilip Chouhan sits in an office behind a copy shop in the small central Indian town of Alirajpur, meaty arms folded across his chest. Above him stretches a poster of a tribal warrior. Mr. Chouhan is part of a growing network of anti-Christian muscle.

Just the mention of Christians makes his face pucker, as if he licked a lemon.

“These ‘believers,’” he said, using the term derisively, “they promise all kinds of stuff — motorcycles, TVs, fridges. They work off superstition. They mislead people.”

Mr. Chouhan lives in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which this year passed an anti-conversion law that carries prison sentences of up to 10 years for any person found guilty of leading illegal conversions, which are vaguely defined. Energized by this law, Mr. Chouhan, 35, and scores of other young Hindu nationalists have stormed a string of churches. Some of the raids were broadcast on the news, including footage of Mr. Chouhan barging into one church with a shotgun on his back.

He said he wore the gun on his back simply out of “fashion,” and a senior police officer in that area said there would be no charges. Instead, as happened with the Indore episode, several pastors in the ransacked churches were jailed on charges of illegal conversions. Police officials declined to share their evidence.

Mr. Chouhan says his group, which uses WhatsApp to plan its raids on upcoming church services, has 5,000 members. It is part of a constellation of Hindu nationalist organizations across the country, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., as well as many members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or the B.J.P.

“The B.J.P. is really into this issue, big time,” said Gaurav Tiwari, a party youth leader in Madhya Pradesh.

His B.J.P. comrades in the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh recently conducted several anti-Christian marches during which they belted out: “Converters! Let’s beat them with shoes!” In September, they did exactly that: A throng of young B.J.P. workers from the same chapter barged into a Chhattisgarh police station and hurled shoes at two pastors and beat them up — right in front of police officers.

“I slapped that pastor five or six times,” bragged Rahul Rao, a 34-year-old contractor and officer holder of the B.J.P. youth cell. “It was immensely satisfying.”

In this case, police officers have charged Mr. Rao, who was bailed out by other B.J.P. members. But in many cases, the authorities take the mob’s side.

A recently leaked letter, from a top police official in Chhattisgarh to his underlings, reads: “Keep a constant vigil on the activities of Christian missionaries.”

What will happen with the anti-conversion laws, and how the courts will interpret them, is now in question. India’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear several petitions that have direct application to the laws. The Wire reports:

Several BJP-ruled states have brought in new ‘freedom of religion’ laws, which right-wing groups have made clear are meant to tackle the bogey of ‘love jihad’. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, there have been reports of how this law is being used to harass interfaith couples, particularly Muslim men marrying Hindu women.

In the same batch of petitions being heard by the Supreme Court, there are also petitions seeking action against alleged forced conversion. One of those was filed by BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay. His lawyer, senior advocate Arvind P. Datar, told the court on Friday that Upadhyay’s additional affidavit was being withdrawn since objections had been made to statements made in it.

Earlier, the bench had criticised this additional affidavit, which made allegations of “mass conversion”, saying that it made objectionable remarks about minority communities.

Photo: Remains of a church property burnt down during communal violence in Orissa in August 2008 (ALL INDIA CHRISTIAN COUNCIL/CCA-Share Alike 3.0)

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