By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
NEW DELHI, INDIA (BosNewsLife)-- Christian aid group Open Doors is launching a social media campaign against plans by Hindu groups in India to "cleanse the nation" of Christianity within three years. The announcement by one of the world's leading organizations for persecuted Christians comes amid church attacks by militants linked to groups such as Dharm Jagran Samiti, which wants India to become an exclusively Hindu nation, or 'Hindu Rashtra,' by 2021.
"Unfortunately" when Christians are facing assaults, "they often receive little or no protection from government officials who themselves ascribe to Hinduism," Open Doors explained in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife. "As victims suffer, the lack of community response piles on another layer of persecution. In addition to the physical violence, they are made to feel isolated, excluded, and alone," Open Doors added.
With Easter approaching, the group said it wanted to "light up" social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others channels "with memes that remind believers in India that Christians around the world stand with them, pray for them and call on world leaders to intervene on their behalf."
Open Doors suggested that recent attacks against churches in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu "reinforces the increasing persecution" and the "Hindu extremists’ resolve to drive out Christians" and turn India into a 100 percent Hindu state.
The group noted that a Hindu mob of "50 extremists" raided five churches "brutally attacking and abusing Christians as they worshipped." The crowd reportedly also stripped and beat several women.
The attackers, who allegedly included a state-provided police officer, were part of Hindu Munnani, a group formed to defend Hinduism, Christians said. The organization’s District Secretary Thangam Venkatesh reportedly led the mob.
Venkatesh went to the prayer hall and "abused" the pastor, Ravi Jacob, using "extremely vulgar language" before attacking the pastor's wife, Persis, according to witnesses. BosNewsLife was not able to reach Venkatesh, but footage seen by BosNewsLife appeared to show him shouting abuse at a pastor. “The extremists were aggressive and uncontrollable,” claimed John J.Y. Arul, chairman of a local pastors’ fellowship in India in published remarks.
"In front of children and others in the church, they savagely beat up Jacob and Persis. They removed the saree of the pastor’s wife and repeatedly kicked her in the face," Arul told Open Doors' news agency World Watch Monitor. “I can’t repeat the words they used against Persis. We were shocked by their inhuman behavior.”
When Persis cried for help, the police guard with the Munnani leader asked her to “prostrate herself at the feet of Thangam Venkatesh and
plead for his forgiveness,” Christians said. The mob was also seen burning Christian literature, including Bibles.
The same Hindu Munnani men reportedly attacked four other churches and their pastors in the district. Open Doors said the mob went to the Bethesda Worship Centre, where they stripped and attacked three women. The assailants sexually assaulted two middle-aged women and slapped and punched Bava Dhaarani, 23.
BosNewsLife does not name victims of sexual assault without consent. "The treatment from local police set forth another wave of persecution," Open Doors claimed. When one of the abused women attempted to complain to the police, she learned that they could “only take one complaint per church,” activists said. "And the church pastor, they said, had already made a complaint," Open Doors told BosNewsLife.
The mob allegedly threatened to "brutally" murder Bethseda’s pastor, identified only as Jagatheesan, within five days. They allegedly taunted him: “If you are a man, why did you convert? Why did you change your god?”
Jagatheesan reportedly said: “Their words were brutish. Had I uttered a single word, they would have attacked us the same way as sister Persis... They showed no mercy.”
The activists reportedly also told the pastor: “If you want to serve Jesus Christ, go to Bethlehem or the Vatican. Worship him there. Why do you want to make India impure?”
At the church, the mob shouted threats to a 19-year-old named James, whose father, Emmanuel, pastors another church, Christians said. The crowd allegedly chanted: “If you continue gathering for Sunday worship and prayers, it will be your dad’s turn next.”
James added: “[Hindu nationalists] are ruling in the center; it is their government. We Christians are helpless.” Another pastor, Sagi Sugathia, claimed that the mob was "at least 25 in number and very violent. We had to stop our church services because of Thangam Venkatesh and his men.”
Often Christians use only a first name in news reports amid security concerns. Open Doors said that it was also concerned about other large Hindu groups targeting Christians such as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). "Hindu radicals also dominate the central government in New Delhi."
In Muslim-majority areas, Christians also complain of persecution by Muslim groups. In the more impoverished regions of India, such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Maoist rebels, known as the Naxalite movement, have also been accused of persecuting Christians.
Separate footage obtained by BosNewsLife also showed attacks around Christmas, with Hindu militants attacking church groups on festivities.
(Story continues after footage appearing to show at least one of these attacks against Christians).
Open Doors suggested that attacks by militants, who it prefers to call "radicals", had increased since November 2016 when "a pastor and his family showed the Jesus Film" about the work, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to people in their village. "When they returned to their home, [their house] had been burned down."
In March 2017, U.S.-based Christian charity Compassion International reportedly ended its activities in India because of increasing governmental restrictions. "Since the pro-Hindu BJP party came to power in 2014, radical Hindu groups have accused Christian charities of attempting to convert Hindus," Open Doors said.
Rights activists also mentioned an incident in May 2017, involving authorities detaining six pastors at a prayer meeting in a believer’s home in the village of Salempur in Uttar Pradesh. The pastors were reportedly charged "with disturbing the peace, creating hostility between religions and attempting to incite a riot."
Open Doors fears that many more Christians will be attacked "because Hindu radicals view Christians as outsiders." The group claims "these radicals are intent on cleansing the nation of both Islam and Christianity and employ violence to this end."
Open Doors said that converts to Christianity usually experience "the worst persecution and are constantly under pressure to return to Hinduism."
Hindu campaigns as 'Ghar Wapsi,' or 'homecoming,' are used to get Christians to denounce their newfound faith in Jesus Christ, BosNewsLife learned. "These converts are often physically assaulted and sometimes killed for refusing to deny Christ," Open Doors said.
The advocacy group accused the government of "looking away when religious minorities are attacked, indicating that violence may continue to increase in the coming years."
Open Doors said its social media campaign against the attacks on Christianity in India is part of its "privilege to continue the good work that "Bible smuggler Brother Andrew" started over 60 years ago.
Brother Andrew, a Dutchman whose real name is Anne van der Bijl, founded Open Doors as a young man while smuggling Bibles to Communist nations in Europe.
"Today, we partner to support the church in over 60 countries, including India," Open Doors said, adding that it could not do without Christians caring about "the victims of religious violence that often get little attention in our [meanstream] media."
Christians comprise just over two percent of India’s over 1.3 billion population. India ranks 11th on the Open Doors annual World Watch List of 50 countries where it claims Christians are persecuted the most.
Open Doors said it was crucial to pray for Christians in the mainly Hindu nation. "Please pray this week for the safety of these church leaders and their churches. Pray also for healing for those wounded in the attacks and the victims’ mental and emotional state after these abusive and violent attacks," the group asked supporters.