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


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Kerala, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – Suspected Hindu extremists burned down a school building run by a church on Oct. 16 in Kuravilangad. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the main building of St. Mary Higher Secondary School was destroyed in the fire, and authorities found materials used to set the school ablaze on the premises. Church authorities demanded an investigation, and government officials have visited the site. The school has a reputation for holding seats open for poor Dalit Christians in spite of strong opposition from the upper-caste Hindus. A police investigation was ongoing at press time.

Karnataka – Mangalore police on Oct. 14 assaulted a Christian for participating in a recent protest rally against attacks on churches. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that local police targeted Herald D’Souza for taking part in the rally, dragged him to a police station and severely thrashed him, then charged him with rioting. The head constable, identified only as Gopalakrishna, assaulted him without initiating any inquiry. D’Souza sustained serious injuries on his backbone, chest, face and hands. A complaint has been registered against the head constable, but senior police officials are pressuring the Christian for a settlement.

Andhra Pradesh – Police on Oct. 14 arrested Christians in Kamareddygudem village of Nalgonda district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that at about 8 p.m., as the five-member Operation Mobilization (OM) Christian media team led by Kummari Rajesh was screening a film on Jesus, a group of extremists arrived on motorbikes. They assaulted the OM team and destroyed equipment worth more than 200,000 rupees (US$3,950). Rajasekhar Sarella, legal counsel for the Christians, told Compass that Rajesh filed a First Information Report against the extremists at Thripuraram police station, and the extremists filed a counter complaint. The Christians were charged with “unlawful assembly” and “hurting religious sentiments.” They were released on bail on Oct. 20. Police also arrested Hindu extremists Gundeboina Lingaiah, Srinivas Reddy and Narshingh Venkatreddy for damaging property and voluntarily causing hurt with dangerous weapons. The extremists were also released on bail.

Karnataka – Unknown assailants set a church building on fire on Oct. 13 in Yadavanahalli, Bangalore, burning it down at 1 a.m. According to the Global Council of Indian Christians, a pulpit, tables, sound system, fans, music instruments, lights and other furniture of St. Anthony church were reduced to ashes, with damages estimated at around 100,000 rupees (US$1,975). Police claimed that it was an accident, while the Electrical Inspectorate of Karnataka ruled out an electrical short circuit. Church authorities have filed a complaint, and at press time a police investigation was underway.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) disrupted worship and threatened Christians on Oct. 12 in Madanapally, Chitoor. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that about 20 extremists barged into Krupa Prayer House shouting the Hindu devotional slogan “Jai Sri Ram [praise lord Ram]” and told the Christians not to conduct future worship meetings. The Hindu extremists planted a stone in front of the church and told the Christians that they were planning to build a Hindu temple there. A GCIC representative told Compass that the matter was settled, with a police official promising to give the Hindu extremists land for a temple elsewhere.

Uttar PradeshHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists allegedly belonging to the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak and Bajrang Dal on Oct. 12 disrupted worship, desecrated Bibles and vandalized furniture at a church in Anola. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that at about 10 a.m. some 15 to 20 extremists led by Sanjeev Saxena stormed into an Assemblies of God Church, denouncing Christ and cursing. They warned pastor Jallal Masih and the nearly 35 believers not to worship in the church building again. A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Compass that no Sunday worship has been held there since then.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists attacked a church and damaged a statue of Mary on Oct. 9 in Ganapathy, Coimbatore. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the assailants entered the church premises, broke the glass cabin and damaged the six-foot tall statue. The incident sparked protest among Christians, resulting in about 100 church members gathering on the road demanding protection and the immediate arrest of the Hindu extremists. Police have arrested three extremists, said the GCIC, and at press time calm had returned to the area.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Oct. 5 burned Immanuel Full Gospel church, and police forced its pastor to give a false statement in Kanaji Pura, Chamarajanagar. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that extremists set fire to the church, damaging the pulpit, Bibles and hymn books. The extremists along with police officials had threatened pastor C.J. Patrick two weeks prior, telling him to cease worship and shut down his church. A police complaint has been filed, but police have pressured the pastor to falsely state that it was an accident and not an attack. A GCIC representative told Compass that the case was closed, as the pastor gave the false statement in writing.

Uttar Pradesh – Police raided a church based on a complaint filed by Hindu extremists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, or VHP) for forceful conversion on Oct. 2 in Baradabari. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that police investigated The Alliance Ministry’s Life Church, taking away a church register and other documents. After the enquiry police returned the register and allowed pastor Rajender Gautham to continue his ministry, but on Oct. 4 summoned him again. They told him to halt future worship meetings in the church building, as the VHP had threatened to attack Christian meetings in the area.

Chhattisgarh – Violent attacks rattled the Christian community in Dantewada district in the past month, with Hindu extremists seriously injuring a Christian woman attending a funeral with an axe blow to the head. As Christians gathered for a memorial service for Somli Bai of Narli village on Sept. 29, an angry mob attacked them, injuring about 35 Christians, six of them seriously. A woman identified only as Bode was admitted to a hospital with a serious head injury from an axe, as was Raju Karma, who was critically wounded and his motorcycle burned. Some of the Christians took shelter in a nearby jungle, with three persons missing. On Oct. 5, a mob demonstrated in front of Indian Pentecostal Church in Kirandul, 10 kilometers (six miles) from Narli, accusing the pastor of forcible conversions. He has reportedly gone into hiding following death threats to his family and him. In Bacheli (three kilometers from Narli), pastor Sudarshan Pani told Compass that Hindu extremists tried to kidnap Satish Basra, pastor of the late Bai’s church. Local residents foiled the kidnapping attempt. Police have been informed of all the incidents, but a First Information Report has not been filed, according to local sources. “These troubles have been started by outsiders who have come into the Kirandul-Bacheli area and are inciting local people against Christians,” Pastor Pani said. “A few high-caste families have voluntarily accepted Christianity in the past few days and this has added more fuel to the fire. The convert families are firm, but the pressure is being felt by the entire community.”

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 28 disrupted a worship service and detained a pastor in Hubli. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that police took the pastor for questioning based on Hindu extremists’ allegations of forceful conversion. Worship came to a halt as police ordered members to stop the meeting. Saying that that he had not caused any disturbances and was conducting the worship service in a Christian’s building, pastor Daniel Kote was released after questioning. Recently Hindu extremists had attacked another worship meeting led by Pastor Kote in Hotel Chalukya, resulting in services moving to the church member’s building.

New Delhi – Hindu extremists belonging to Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh vandalized a church, accused the pastor of forcible conversion and brought down the roof and a wall of Rehma Faith Church on Sept. 17 in Peeragarhi, west Delhi. The same mob on Sept. 18 arrived at the church with saffron flags, vandalized the remains of the church and pelted Christians with stones, while police stood by as mere spectators, reported the Christian Legal Association of India. A child and three church members were injured in the attack. A complaint has been registered and police protection has been provided on the church premises.

Andhra Pradesh – A revenue inspector and his workers demolished a church building on Sept. 3 in Hyderabad. According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), the revenue inspector identified only as Srihari said that he had carried out the demolition according to orders from another revenue inspector identified only as Sudhakar. The pastor, identified only as Jairaj, had all pertinent documents for legal ownership of the land, but the inspector refused to listen to him and went ahead with the demolition work. Hindu extremists reportedly had earlier pressured the pastor to vacate the building. Pastor Jairaj has sought help from the National Minority Commission. Moses Vattipalli told Compass that AICC has decided to file a case against the revenue officers.

Report from Compass Direct News