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Attacks on Christians and Churches in Orissa and Karnataka

Posted on: September 22, 2008 4:42 PM
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An Indian member of NIFCON (the Network for Inter Faith Concerns for the Anglican Communion) offers the following reflection on the current problems in India:

“The recent murder in Orissa of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a leader of Bajrang Dal (a radical section of the Hindu nationalist organisation RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has led to very serious attacks on Christians and on churches and Christian institutions in various parts of India. The leader of Bajrang Dal was trying to convert Dalit and Tribal Christians forcibly back to Hinduism and was shot dead by a member of a Maoist group. Because this Maoist group includes Christian Tribal people among its membership it was interpreted by extremist Hindus as a Christian attack on a Hindu leader. As a result Christians were attacked in return – suffering loss of life (more than 30 dead), loss of property and forced flight, and in some cases forced conversion to Hinduism. The attacks have now also spread to Mangalore in Karnataka state. Although there are anti-Christian incidents on a regular basis in these states (and others such as Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh) the recent attacks appear to be the most serious violence against the Christian community in the last 50 years.

In both Orissa and Karnataka states the BJP (the nationalist Hindu party) and their allies are in power. In Karnataka the BJP Chief Minister made a statement asking Christians to stop forcible conversion which was regarded as an attempt to justify the attacks against Christians. Christian institutions are already facing closure in many parts of Karnataka due to the BJP government’s stringent measures against them.

The role of the BJP in the conflict is linked to the wider Indian political scene – and manoeuvring on the part of the BJP to secure emotional support from Hindus ahead of next year’s election. There is regular negative comment made by BJP politicians about Christians in relation to conversion i.e. that they offer inducements to convert to Christianity.

The Indian Government is taking steps to ban Bajrang Dal. They should be encouraged in action against such groups. Additionally funds for many of these organisations flow from the West in the name of development and support, but these funds are then used for hate mongering initiatives including printed handouts etc. Ways need to be found to prevent Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), Bajrang Dal and similar organisations from raising funds abroad.

The reality is that Christians do not have the power to forcibly convert any non Christians into the Christian fold. Occasional stray incidents or examples from the North Eastern states where Christian are in a majority are used by Hindu extremist organisations to create a false picture. However the RSS blames Christian educational and social developmental organisations for using scholarships and funds for projects etc as inducements for conversion, even though the reality is that Christian institutions try to avoid such incidents.

Christians are also accused of creating fear among non-Christians to convert them to Christianity i.e. with threats such as you will not go to heaven if you do not follow Christ.. It is a big theological challenge how to be Christians without such theological claims. When one of the churches was attacked during the worship services, some of the attackers specifically told the priest not to preach Christ as the only way; he should preach about other ways too. It is clear that underlying many of these criticisms of Christians is the desire to unite Hindus emotionally and turn their anger into votes.

However it is true that there are problems within Christian circles as well. The work of the mainline churches in India is undermined by television evangelists who regularly attack other religions and display converts from Hinduism as a kind of trophy. There are four or five such cable channels in India running 24 hours a day- seeking to present many kinds of extremist material as the Christian message.

There has been longstanding Christian missionary work among Dalits, and Tribal communities for up to 40 years which has focused on care, education and support more than conversion. Such mission is becoming more difficult because of extremist Christian groups on the one hand and the Hindutva agenda on the other. It would not be right for the established churches to stop such mission among the underprivileged. However upper caste Hindus are feeling the loss of power over the Dalits and Tribals as many of the marginalised communities have become aware of the exploitation and discrimination they have suffered. Caste Hindus have therefore sought to sway such communities against Christians as a means of getting back their power and authority over the marginalised.”

Christianity in India

Christians comprise about 2.3% of the population of India. The majority population of India is Hindu, though there are substantial Muslim and Sikh minorities. There are about 25 million Christians. There has been a long-standing Christian presence in the country since the first Christian centuries. The traditional founder of Christianity in India was St Thomas the Apostle. The Christian presence is very diverse: there are Christians linked to the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions. In 1947 a number of Christian denominations (including Anglicans) united to form the Church of South India; this was followed in 1970 by the establishment of the Church of North India, which also included an Anglican element. The Church of South India and the Church of North India are members of the Anglican Communion.

On Tuesday 2 September 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued this statement about the situation in India.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Willams, has expressed profound distress at the extreme violence being used in Orissa following the murder of Hindu leader, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati.

In a letter sent today to the Moderator of North India, the Most Revd Joel Mal, Dr Williams called for an end to the violence in Orissa and for intense prayer for the suffering churches.

The Archbishop said of the situation:

"I hope that Christians and people of faith around the world will make known their horror at this violence, their support for the rebuilding of lives and the churches, orphanages and schools destroyed, and for work towards future reconciliation".

Please pray with and for the Christians of India. You may wish to use the following prayer which is shortened and adapted from ‘the Litany of the Disciples of Christ the Servant’. It was written in India.

Servant Christ,
Help us to follow you
Deep into the waters of baptism,
To break the chain of past wrongs;
To become fit to face your coming age:
Servant Christ, help us all to follow you.

Help us to follow you
In untiring ministry to town and village,
To heal and restore the broken body of humanity,
To cast out the demonic forces
Of greed, resentment, communal hatred
And self-destructive fears
Servant Christ, help us all to follow you.

Help us to follow you on the road to Jerusalem,
To set our faces firmly against friendly suggestions to live
A safe, expedient life;
To embrace boldly the way of self-offering,
The way of life given for other’s gain.
Servant Christ, help us all to follow you.

Help us to follow you out of the dark tomb;
To share fully in your resurrection life,
To be renewed daily in your image of love,
To serve daily as your new body
In ministering to the world.
Servant Christ, help us all to follow you.

For more information contact Clare Amos, Coordinator of NIFCON at clare.amos@anglicancommunion.org