By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
NEW DELHI, INDIA (BosNewsLife)-- Christian groups in India have urged authorities to increase protection of churches during the Easter season after at least five churches in the country were reportedly targeted on by Hindu extremists and government officials. The Palm Sunday attacks included disrupting worship services and prayer gatherings, the detention of pastors, their wives and other church members, as well as the beating by a mob of a pastor for allegedly violating "anti-conversion laws".
They all were later released, Christians said.
"We urge the respective state governments and the central (federal) government to not only take note of these violations, but also to take action to curtail the non-state actors who function with impunity," said the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) which represents evangelical groups and churches across the country.
"It is important, especially now as we are in the Passion Week; for, going by the trends so far, it seems the incidents may escalate during Good Friday and Easter," the group added in remarks monitored by BosNewsLife.
"It does not reflect well on the world's largest democracy if incidents like these continue to hound religious minorities. We also request that the state...be held accountable and responsible for enforcing the rule of law, so that minorities can live in peace and without fear," the group added.
Four of the five states in which the incidents took place are ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Under his leadership pressure on minority Christians increased especially in states where "anti-conversion laws" are imposed, church groups say. "While they appear to protect against forced conversions, in reality, they discriminate against minority groups by forbidding them from any form of evangelism," said Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC), a major advocacy group following the incidents.
Palm Sunday's attacks were reported in states such as Uttar Pradesh where a Hindu mob reportedly beat up pastor Krishna Paul, the leader of the evangelical Believers Church in Jahanpur village, in Ghazipur district. Paul was handed over to police but released after local Christian leaders intervened and spoke to law enforcement, Christians said.
The state of Madhya Pradesh was also the scene of attacks with Hindu extremists accompanied by police disrupting a church service in
Sitabedi village in Khandwa district, according to EFI and other sources. Police arrested pastors and their wives and other Christians,
and took them to the local police station. Three pastors were reportedly detained under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act or “anti-conversion law”.
They were apparently released later.
Elsewhere, Hindu extremists interrupted a church service in the Kaithal area of the northern state of Haryana led by a pastor identified as Yashpal, Christian rights activists said. They allegedly "threatened and manhandled” the Christians and filed an official complaint at local police saying Christians had been "forcing" people to convert. Police then detained Christians, Christians said. Local police reportedly called it “protective custody” and added they were released after the allegations against them were found to be "baseless".
Also on Palm Sunday, tensions emerged in the state of Rajasthan as Hindu extremists disrupted the service at the Church of God in the Sri Ganganagar area. Church leader Saji Mathew was soon detained by police along with seven other Christians, EFI said. Local villagers, supported by a Hindu priest, had apparently complained to the village chief that Christians had been “engaging in conversions”. The village chief then signed a complaint and gave it to the local police, who detained the Christians. After local Christian leaders pleaded with the police to release the Christians, they were reportedly freed later that night.
Government officials were also involved in disrupting prayers including in Keeranur in Tamil Nadu state's Dindigul district, Christians said.
The officials disrupted "private prayers" at the house of a Christian man named as Gunasekaran. The officials allegedly took video footage
photos of people praying and then told them to stop. They were told "to ask permission from the District Collector before praying again
in the house", EFI reported.
Gunasekaran’s extended family of some 20 people held prayer services in the house every Sunday for the last 24 years, BosNewsLife learned.
Gunasekaran was reportedly forced to sign a document about the unauthorized prayer services and told to report to the local government office the following day. EFI expressed doubts about the authorities objections saying the prayer service was attended only by family members and not by other members of the public, and that no loudspeaker system was used during prayers.
Following the incidents, the National Council of Churches in India warned that the apparent "sudden rise" in anti-Christian violence was
a "signal" that Hindu nationalist groups like the governing BJP and others "are going to use the communal card in the most blatant way" --
by teaching majority-Hindus that minorities like Christians and Muslims present a threat to this Hindu nation of more than 1 billion people.
Prime Minister Modi has in the past said that his government "will protect all faiths" and not allow any group to "incite religious hatred", but critics say that was said under pressure after previous attacks and that Christians face more difficulties than ever. Christians comprise just over 2 pecent of India's mainly Hindu population of nearly 1.3 billion people, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).