Legislation leading to anti-Christian attacks said to be planned in violence-ridden state.

NEW DELHI, March 2 (Compass Direct News) – The Hindu nationalist government in the southern state of Karnataka, which recorded the second highest number of attacks on Christians last year, is planning to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti-Christian violence in other states.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. Comments from public officials sometimes heighten this misconception: India’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, but Karnataka Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights S. Suresh Kumar said in the Feb. 22 edition of a Hindu extremist publication that the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government “is set to frame an anti-conversion law, as innocent Hindus are getting converted to other religions.”

“Poor and uneducated Hindus are becoming victims of false propaganda against Hinduism, and our government is planning to enact a law after studying the similar anti-conversion acts/anti-conversion bills of various states,” the BJP minister said in the Organiser, official publication of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Cynically named “Freedom of Religion Acts,” the laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations. Numerous cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in the more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), expressed anguish over reported plans to introduce a law that has a history of misuse by extreme Hindu nationalists. He also indicated his concern at the government’s slackness in prosecuting those who have attacked Christians.

“Unfortunately, 2008 saw the worst kind of regression in our society as the church in India experienced a wave of violence and persecution unprecedented since the origin of Christianity in India 2,000 years ago,” George said, referring to a sudden rise in anti-Christian attacks in several Indian states, mainly Karnataka and the eastern state of Orissa, in the latter part of last year.

With the BJP forming a government of its own last year, fears within the Christian community that persecution would increase came true, he said.

“Karnataka recorded at least 112 anti-Christian attacks across 29 districts in 2008,” and at least 10 more such incidents have been reported this year, said George. Christians number slightly more than 1 million of Karnataka’s 52.8-million population.

Among the more tense districts in Karnataka are Mangalore, Bangalore and Davangere, according to George. The districts of Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimoga, Dharwad and Kodagu are also potentially volatile, he said. The GCIC reported that on Jan. 11 unidentified extreme Hindu nationalists barged into the home of a Christian convert in Amrthmahal Kavalu area near Tiptur town in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, verbally abused the four Christians there and burned their Bibles. The nine hard-line Hindus threatened to burn down the house if the Christians continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre.

Besides legitimizing anti-Christian violence in the popular mind, critics say anti-conversion laws make conversion cumbersome and identify targets for Hindu extremists. In Gujarat state, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes, and non-profit organizations have filed a petition in the state high court challenging a requirement in Gujarat’s anti-conversion law that co-religionists obtain prior permission from a district magistrate before performing or participating in a conversion ceremony. The Times of India reported on Friday (Feb. 27) that Justice M.S. Shah and Justice Akil Kureshi have accepted the case and issued a notice to the state government seeking explanation on objections raised by petitioners.

“The Act, by making one’s conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge, really aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion,” petitioner attorneys contended. “In the name of maintaining law and order, the Act will invite people to disturb law and order.” Counsel added that the Act aims mainly at “preventing Dalits and adivasis [tribal people] from converting to another religion, thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold.”


Orissa Fallout

A fresh spate of attacks hit Karnataka last September following India’s worst-ever wave of persecution in the eastern state of Orissa, where at least 127 people were killed and 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were destroyed. The Orissa attacks, allegedly incited by the BJP and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) under the pretext of avenging the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district, also rendered more than 50,000 people homeless. Although an extreme Marxist group claimed responsibility for Saraswati’s murder, the VHP and the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Orissa, blamed Christians for it.

Even as the mayhem in Orissa was underway, VHP’s youth wing Bajrang Dal began attacks on Christians and their institutions in Karnataka on the pretext of protesting alleged distribution by the New Life Fellowship organization of a book said to denigrate Hindu gods. According to Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, last September at least 33 churches were attacked and 53 Christians were injured, mainly in the Mangalore region of Dakshina Kannada district and parts of Udupi district.

The state convener for the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks and was arrested on Sept. 19, a day after the federal government ruled by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance admonished the state government for allowing attacks on Christians, according to The Deccan Herald, a regional daily. Kumar, however, was subsequently released on bail.

While the issue of the “objectionable” book served as the pretext for the attacks, the BJP had already become upset with New Life Fellowship because a film actress known as Nagma announced in July 2008 that she had become Christian a few years prior. BJP attorneys sent her a threatening legal notice for “hurting religious sentiments.”

In a press conference at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu state on July 24, the general secretary of the BJP’s legal wing, Sridhar Murthi, said that Nagma – who appeared in several Tamil-, Telugu- and Hindi-language films from 1993 to 1997 – had hurt the sentiments of others while speaking at a Christian meeting in Nalumavadi, in the Tuticorin area.

“In that meeting, she said she is ready to preach the gospel in every city and town that the Lord takes her to,” reported The Christian Messenger, a Christian news website based in Tamil Nadu state. New Life Fellowship later reportedly ordained Nagma as a minister.

Following the attacks – not only on New Life Church but also on churches and individuals from various denominations – the BJP government set up the Justice B.K. Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Churches and Christians had filed 458 affidavits from Dakshina Kannada district. After questioning 49 witnesses, the panel completed its five-day judicial proceeding in Mangalore on Feb. 20 and set the next sitting for March 16-20. The Commission earlier had a sitting in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka.

Karnataka also has gained recent notoriety for violent vigilantes. Last month a splinter group from the extreme Hindu nationalist VHP, the Sri Ram Sene, attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, saying only men were allowed to drink.

“These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore,” Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express on Feb. 3. “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”

With national elections expected to be held in April-May this year, Christians fear that attacks could continue. Dr. Bokanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, the 66-year-old chief minister of Karnataka, has been part of the RSS since 1970.

Report from Compass Direct News


Two killed in Uttarakhand state; more violence in Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala.

NEW DELHI, September 24 (Compass Direct News) – The unprecedented wave of anti-Christian attacks that began a month ago continued in the past week with more incidents of murder, rape and arson, mostly in the eastern state of Orissa and southern state of Karnataka. Two Christians were also found murdered in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

“The atmosphere in the Kandhamal district of Orissa is still volatile,” an attorney visiting Kandhamal with a team to provide legal aid to victims told Compass. “Yesterday afternoon, we were going to the Raikia area, but as we were about to reach there, we were informed that a mob had attacked a police station and the police had to open fire. We had to flee Kandhamal right away.”

According to The Indian Express, around 2,000 people, including women, surrounded the Raikia police station yesterday to demand the release of two fellow villagers from Masakadia village who had been arrested on charges of arson and rioting.

Security personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a federal agency, opened fire to prevent the mob from entering the police station. The security personnel resorted to fire after failing to control the mob with persuasion and the use of batons, added the daily. One person died and two were critically injured from the gunfire.

The attorney also said Hindu extremists had destroyed all communication links in Kandhamal, including mobile phone networks, and blocked some roads with trees and stones.


Rape, Murder, Arson in Orissa

Attacks on Christians continued in the Kandhamal district. While a young woman was reportedly gang-raped by unidentified rioters on Sunday night (Sept. 21), a man went missing and was allegedly killed on Friday (Sept. 19).

Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital, told Compass that a local Oriya-language newspaper, Dharitri, reported that a 20-year-old woman was raped by about 15 men in an area under Tikabali police jurisdiction in Kandhamal late on Sept. 21.

The victim, who was living in a relief camp and believed to be Christian, had gone back to her house to see her grandmother. A group of men stormed the house and took her to a nearby jungle and raped her, Singh said, adding that the police had confirmed the incident.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that Iswar Digal, who had taken refuge at Ghumusar Udayagiri relief camp and was believed to be Christian, went missing after he went to meet his ailing father in Gatingia village on Friday (Sept. 19). Digal’s wife, Runima Digal, filed a police complaint stating that Hindu extremists killed her husband after he had gone to the village along with her to visit his father.

She said the extremists had warned them not to return to the village if they did not convert from Christianity to Hinduism. Police, however, have registered only a case of kidnapping, added PTI.

The news agency also reported that at least 10 houses, believed to be that of Christians, were burned in Gochhapada area on Saturday (Sept. 20). An Orissa state official told The Times of India, “It is difficult to guard all the remote areas. But we are trying our best.”

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates on Aug. 23. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP put the blame on local Christians, saying they killed him because he was resisting conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), at least 14 districts witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter, and at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests. Some 4,000 houses and 115 churches have been burned or destroyed, and the AICC reported 45 Christians were confirmed dead with five others still missing.


Killing in Uttarakhand

Amid persistent tensions in various parts of the country following the violence in Orissa, two Catholics, including a woman, were found murdered on Monday (Sept. 22) in the Dehra Dun district of the northern state of Uttarakhand (formerly known as Uttaranchal).

A 56-year-old Catholic preacher, Sadhu Astey, and his disciple, identified only as Mercy, 32, were found strangled to death at their prayer center, called Samarpanalaya, in Chotta Rampur village near Herbertpur area in Vikasnagar Block, reported The Tribune.

Police said local residents grew suspicious when there was no movement at the center the past two days and informed officers. The center was found ransacked.

“We are investigating these murders to know whether it was done by dacoits [bandits] with an intention to loot, or there is something else,” Police Inspector Harish Verma told media. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians said he suspected Hindu extremists were behind the killing.

The Tribune said it was the fourth attack on Christians in the Dehra Dun district in the past few months.

Sangh Parivar [family of Hindu nationalist groups led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS] activists had attacked Christian missionaries on Aug. 15 when they were distributing their leaflets,” the daily reported. “They were brought to the police station and beaten up. Interestingly, instead of taking action against the attackers, the police detained five of the Christian leaders for nine hours.”

Christians were also attacked in the area on June 4 and June 22, it added.

Uttarakhand is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


Attacks in Karnataka, Kerala

Suspected Hindu extremists attacked at least three more churches in the southern state of Karnataka, where violence against Christians rose to new heights after tensions began in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 21), two churches were vandalized in the state capital, Bangalore, and another church was attacked in the Kodagu district, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Bangalore.

In Bangalore, extremists desecrated the St. James Church in Mariammanapalya near Hebbal area and the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Rajarajeshwarinagar area, reported The Times of India. Police told the daily that they had detained seven people and suspended a constable for negligence in protecting the churches.

In Kodagu district, members of the Brethren’s Church in Nellihudikeri area found portions of the front glass facade of the church broken on Sunday morning, reported the daily. The vandalism occurred despite two constables guarding the church.

Karnataka police arrested the state convener of VHP youth wing Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, on Friday night (Sept. 19) in connection with the spate of attacks on churches and prayer halls in several parts of the state. Bajrang Dal extremists vandalized numerous churches and Christian institutions in various parts of Karnataka earlier this month.

On Monday (Sept. 22), anguished Catholic Archbishop of Bangalore the Rev. Dr. Bernard Moras told Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa that he was ready to “shed blood and give his life for Christ,” reported the Economic Times.

Yeddyurappa had called on the archbishop and senior state officials after an emergency cabinet meeting. Archbishop Moras “greeted the visitors with a grim face without the customary geniality,” the daily reported, “and blurted out his anguish: ‘I am deeply hurt and saddened. This is not a happy occasion to meet the head of the state.’”

The Karnataka chief minister assured the Christian minority community that security at churches and Christian institutions had been increased. He also claimed that the attacks on churches were part of a conspiracy to malign the BJP in Karnataka.

Yeddyurappa said police had arrested three persons including the son of a local Congress Party leader in connection with a violent incident in the Sagar area of Shimoga district, reported the Rediff News on Monday (Sept. 22). “Ravi, another person arrested in connection with the attack, is said to have instigated these youth to desecrate churches by promising to pay 1.5 million Indian rupees [US$32,800],” it reported.

Yeddyurappa had earlier blamed the anti-Christian violence in parts of the state on a booklet reportedly circulated by a Christian organization that allegedly hurt Hindu sentiments.

But a fact-finding team of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which visited the violence-hit areas of Udupi, Mangalore and Bangalore in Karnataka last week, has indicted the BJP government for “being in league with the Hindu extremist groups. It has failed to check attacks on Christians and churches,” reported the Hindustan Times.

The NCM will submit the report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to The Times of India, two churches were attacked in neighboring Kerala state on Sunday (Sept. 21) near the international airport in Nedumbassery, close to Kochi city.

Some churches were attacked in Kerala last week also.


Ban on Extremism – or on Conversion

In the wake of the ongoing wave of anti-Christian attacks in various parts of India, the NCM is mulling recommending a ban on the Bajrang Dal.

The Hindustan Times said the NCM was working towards a unanimous decision seeking tough measures against the Bajrang Dal, as its involvement in “frequent attacks on the minorities and their places of worship across the country has been established beyond doubt.”

The former prime minister of India and chief of the Karnataka-based Janata Dal (Secular) party, H.D. Deve Gowda, also demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal during a sit-in protest in Delhi yesterday. Several other political parties have also urged the federal government to ban the Bajrang Dal.

But a senior BJP leader, Venkaiah Naidu, termed conversion as the root cause of violence and social disturbances, saying a strong federal law to prevent religious conversion across the country would be brought if BJP regained power in the general elections expected to be held early next year, reported PTI on Sunday (Sept. 21).

The BJP leader also asked the Orissa state government to strictly implement the existing anti-conversion law in the state.

The VHP’s central governing body is likely to deliberate on ways to further intensify its campaign against religious conversions in Orissa’s Kandhamal district at its two-day “brain- storming session” in Delhi beginning tomorrow, The Statesman daily reported.

The Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) will hold a rally tomorrow at Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. – the day Prime Minister Singh will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush – demanding an end to violence against Christians in India.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has sent a letter to President Bush urging him to raise pressing concerns about religious freedom in India during his meeting with Prime Minister Singh.  

Report from Compass Direct News