A statue of St. Sebastian was vandalized Jan. 23, 2022, inside a shrine adjacent to Holy Trinity Cathedral Church in the Diocese of Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu state, southern India.
Police arrested four men, including a minor. They were all members of a right-wing Hindu group called Hindu Aikya Munnani (Hindus’ Joint Front).
The attack punctuated what has been a very bad year for Christians in 2021. The annual report of the United Christian Forum (UCF), an ecumenical body in India, says 2021 was “the worst year for Christians in the country.”
UCF has been recording incidents of Christian persecution, as well as fighting for the rights of India’s Christian minority.
“The persecution of Christians has been on a steady rise since 2014,” when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, UCF official A C Michael told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
The Hindu nationalist party began with the promise of helping everyone and working for everyone’s welfare. But, when it comes to Christians, “it has remained a hallow promise,” Michael charges.
The UCF helpline has recorded 505 violent incidents targeting Christians in 2021. The number is likely higher as many failed to muster to courage to report such incidents, fearing further retribution, especially given the hostility of the police.
India recorded 127 incidents of violence against Christians in 2014, and 142 in 2015, followed by 226 in 2016, 248 in 2017, 292 in 2018, 328 in 2019, 279 in 2020, and 505 incidents in 2021. The first 45 days of 2022 already saw 53 incidents.
The drop in the number of incidents in 2020 is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and country’s lockdown.
Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, recorded 105 incidents of persecution against Christians in 2021. The northern state is now ruled by a Hindu seer, Yogi Adityanath a BJP luminary.
Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state ruled by the secular opposition Congress Party, is ranked the second worst state for Christians after it reported 91 attacks in 2021. With 82 cases, Karnataka in southern India, now under BJP rule, recorded the third-highest number of anti-Christian incidents.
Jharkhand State, where a secular alliance government is in power, saw 46 incidents of attacks against Christians. BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, another central Indian state, took the fifth position with 39 incidents, the UCF report says.
According to the report, practicing a faith other than Hinduism, especially Christianity and Islam, has become increasingly dangerous as the authorities are not prepared or willing to ensure the safety and freedom of non-Hindu worshippers
Other states where Christians suffered persecution were Bihar (30 incidents in 2021), Tamil Nadu (21), Odisha (20), Haryana (18), Maharashtra (17), Punjab (10), Andhra Pradesh (9), Gujarat (8), Uttarakhand (8), Delhi (7), Telangana (3), Himachal Pradesh (3), West Bengal (2), Rajasthan (2), Assam (1), and Jammu and Kashmir (1).
Michael reported that his team managed to arrange for the release of 210 persons from detention and reopened 46 places of worship that had been shut down. Unfortunately, according to the UCF report, last year’s tally of anti-Christian incidents resulted in only 34 formal police reports.
The anti-conversion laws enacted by several state governments have further emboldened right-wing Hindu groups in their hostility toward Christians.
“Many BJP-ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have even criminalized inter-religious marriages to target Christians and Muslims who are pushing for changes to the anti-conversion laws,” says Father Maria Stephan, spokesperson for the nine dioceses in Madhya Pradesh.
“Even offering a gift or free admission or a textbook to a Hindu student by a Christian or a Christian school can be labeled as an attempt at religious conversion and trigger a charge of violating the law,” the Bhopal-based priest told ACN.
“They often paint the charitable works of Christian missionaries as a façade to hide attempts at religious conversion,” added the priest.
Father Maria Stephan, however, proclaimed: “We will continue our mission and will not succumb to any pressure or threat from anyone,” as the constitution of the country has grants everyone the freedom to practice and propagate one’s religion of choice.
The priest rejected any kind of religious conversion brought about through allurement, force, or coercion, asserting that “religion is one’s personal choice.”
Already 2022 is off to a bad start for Christians in India; the first 45 days of the year recorded 53 anti-Christian incidents.
Christians make up 2.3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population, which is 80 percent Hindu.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Aid to the Church in Need in the United States