WASHINGTON — Over 1,400 incidents of persecution against Christians in India have been reported since the year Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power, according to an initiative of ADF India.
Human rights advocates briefed congressional staffers Wednesday on the increasing Hindu nationalist violence being carried out against Christians and other religious minorities in India during a Capitol Hill event hosted by the persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern.
ICC, an advocacy organization based outside of Washington, D.C., often receives reports of rapes, communal violence, forced conversion charges and other abuses committed against Christians in the Hindu-majority country.
“Cases such as these are becoming commonplace in India and are largely fueled by rhetoric of BJP and other [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] officials,” ICC advocacy director Matias Perttula said at the beginning of the briefing. “They show a clear indication of the decline of religious freedom and an increase in the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.”
Sean Nelson, legal counsel for global religious freedom with the rights group ADF International, presented troubling statistics on the increase of Christian persecution since the beginning of the Modi regime.
“During the period of 2014 to 2018, India witnessed a sharp increase of violence targeting religious minorities,” he said. “Faith-based human rights organizations recorded over 1,000 incidents in the past five years against the Christian minority community. That doesn’t include other minority communities that are facing other levels of persecution violence.”
Nelson said that 16 out of the 29 states in India “regularly witness attacks on Christians.”
“In 2018, faith-based organizations reported 292 incidents of violence against the Christian community in India,” Nelson said.
“Other minority believers, including Muslims, face violence as well. In the Hindutva ideology, no other faiths besides Hindu are safe. Christians are [considered] western patsies and Muslims belong somewhere else, maybe Pakistan. Indians can only be Hindu, so goes this extreme form of nationalism.”
According to Nelson, every month of 2019 saw more incidents of persecution against Christians in India than they did in 2018.
“For example, in August 2018, there were 14 attacks,” Nelson explained. “This year, there were 33 attacks in August. Every single month you see the exact same thing.”
The data Nelson relied on in the briefing is compiled through an initiative operated by ADF India, an entity that's distinct from ADF International and its partners. The data can be accessed in an online database called MapViolence.In, which tracks “incidents of targeted violence and hostility against Christians in India.”
“With a third of the year of data yet to go, there have already been 219 attacks just through August,” Nelson added. “For 2018, there were 156 attacks during the same time.”
Incidents recorded in the database are verified either through direct contact with someone close to the victims, a trusted independent news source in the region or confirmation from authorities or legal documentation.
According to the online map, there have been 1,457 incidents reported of persecution since 2014.
Nelson explained that incidents of persecution are defined as either an assault on church pastors or members, damage or desecration to places of worship, disruption of prayer services or gatherings, accusations of forced or fraudulent conversions, forced or coerced conversions to Hinduism and refusal to grant permission for religious minorities to establish places of worship.
Seven states in India have anti-conversion laws on the books that criminalize conversion through allurement or other fraudulent means. However, the conversion laws are often abused by Hindu nationalist groups that oppose the existence of Christian missionaries or ministries in their communities.
“In 2018, 100 churches were closed. Hindu fundamentalists either raided them or filed complaints with police,” Nelson said. “Christians find themselves attacked by mobs and accused of converting others by force.”
Although Hindu mob violence against Christians has increased in recent years, perpetrators often experience a level of impunity from local authorities.
Sunita Viswanath, the co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, condemned the rise of Hindu extremism in India.
“We are alarmed by the chilling repression of open debate and political expression happening in Indian civil society today,” she said during the briefing. “This suppression and violence are taking place in the name of a Hinduism we do not recognize and cannot accept.”
Viswanath condemned the picture Modi portrayed of India during a rally in Houston, Texas, on Sunday that was also attended by President Donald Trump.
“No matter what the India prime minister may say on a stage in Houston shared with an American president before 50,000 Indian Americans and the whole world watching, everything in India is not fine,” she contended.
“As Americans of Indian origin who realize the idea of a democracy, we are sounding the alarm bells loud and clear. It is high time that Hindus of conscience all across the world wake up to the reality that their faith has been hijacked by those who have completely rejected its inclusive and egalitarian heart. This is an emergency.”
Perttula also shared results of a survey ICC conducted last year.
Over 1,000 Christians in 10 different Indian states were asked to select a number between one and five to indicate how concerned they are for their safety. An answer of “one” signaled least concern and answer of “five” signaled most concern.
A total of 68.8 percent of respondents answered that their concern is at a level five, meaning that they are most concerned about their safety in India. Meanwhile, 13.55 percent responded by answering that their concern is at a level four.
“When combined, that is 82.14 percent, all of whom are concerned Christians in India,” Perttula said.
Over 85 percent of respondents to the 2018 ICC survey said they also feel less protected under the Modi government.
“The survey provides a grim glimpse into the lives of Indian Christians,” Perttula said.
India ranks as the 10th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
Nelson urged congressional staffers and members of Congress to bring up the issues of religious freedom when engaging with India’s political leaders.
“A lot of [these violations] happen because governments think that nobody really cares and that they are only interested in the economic development or national security issue. The truth is, religious freedom supports all of those things,” Nelson stressed.
“If the government can feel like they can escape inquiry on this, then they won’t take any measures to stop it. Let them know that these anti-conversion laws violate international human rights standards. “If sanctions or restrictions on aid are required to push India in the right direction, don’t be afraid to consider such legislation.”