Torched churches heat up India

Anti-Christian violence by militant Hindus strengthensaccusations against ruling nationalists.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Christians account for scarcely more than 2 percent of the population in India, but to the militant Hindus who have attacked nearly two dozen churches here since Christmas, they are a threat. In addition to torching churches, vandals have desecrated icons, torn Bibles, ransacked schools, and dug up graves in increasing anti-Christian violence since last summer. Most of the violence has occurred in the Western state of Gujarat. In a highly publicized case in September, four nuns were raped in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Now, Christian leaders in India are blaming the ruling Hindu nationalist party for emboldening radicals to launch a campaign of intimidation against their communities that threatens to destroy the secular, tolerant tradition of this huge country. "For the first time since independence 51 years ago, we have systematic, organized attacks on Christian communities in India," says the archbishop of New Delhi, Monsignor Alan de Lastic. "This has happened since the government took office last year." Militant Hindus allied with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have orchestrated at least 114 assaults on Christians in India in the past year, according to the Delhi-based United Christian Forum for Human Rights. At Christmas, vandals rampaged through Christian-populated pockets in Gujarat. In 10 days, they burned or damaged 20 churches. Police rounded up some 120 Hindus and Christians suspected of the attacks and ensuing clashes, though most have been released. Hindu nationalists, who want to repeal constitutional provisions that recognize Islamic law for family matters, have long struck fear among Indian Muslims. (Muslims account for about 12 percent of India's 950 million people, while Hindus constitute 82 percent.) But these days, the fear is most acute among Christians. Militant nationalists accuse missionaries of forcibly converting impoverished Indians. Churches' attention on the poor Church officials say they have been working for the better part of a century to improve the plight of neglected, destitute Indians. Missionaries say they work in remote areas forgotten by the government, offering hope to people on the lowest rung of India's rigid socio-economic ladder, known as the caste system. About 60 percent of Indian Christians were dalits, the outcasts formerly known as untouchables, before converting to Christianity. All told, there are 23,000 Christian institutions in India, including schools, medical centers, and orphanages. "We have always worked for the poor," says the Rev. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. "It's false propaganda that people are forcibly converted." "The issue is not conversion," says Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in India. "It's about some people wanting to hold onto a cultural hegemony. The oppressed are learning to demand their rights. This is what certain groups find objectionable." The latest arson attacks on prayer halls occurred on Monday and Tuesday, the first just hours after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee paid a visit to the area in Gujarat. Though Mr. Vajpayee has condemned the violence, church officials say his government has not done enough to stop it. In fact, they fear that Vajpayee indirectly justified the attacks by calling for a national debate on "forced conversions" during his Gujarat visit, which was designed to show solidarity with the Christian community. In one of the world's most diverse countries, with 13 official languages and six major religions, the BJP's platform champions "one nation, one people, one culture." At the heart of this Hindu-centric policy, known as Hindutva, is the conviction that India is a uniquely Hindu civilization to be molded and defined by its indigenous religion. Since taking the helm of a coalition government last March, Vajpayee - who is considered a moderate - has played down his party's Hindu-chauvinist roots. But the BJP draws support from a vast network of Hindu revival groups, some of which espouse an anti-Western, Hindu-first creed. With the BJP running India for the first time, these groups feel they can pursue their militant agenda without legal consequences. While the attacks have touched a small number of India's 23 million Christians, they represent the larger threat posed by the BJP and its sister groups. For extremists, goal of theocracy The group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has justified the recent anti-Christian campaign, wants India to become a theocratic Hindu state. Ironically, its stronghold is in Gujarat, home of Mohandas Gandhi, who preached religious tolerance. K.L. Sharma, vice president of the BJP, denied that the party's rise to power had anything to do with the attacks on Christians, pointing out that there has been virtually no Hindu-Muslim friction since Vajpayee took office. "We are determined to maintain the secular character of India," he says, noting that the prime minister's Gujarat visit was followed by the removal of an ineffective police chief in the area and a clampdown on instigators. Some observers believe that Hindu zealots are shifting their target to Christians from Muslims because Christians are considered more vulnerable. The rise of Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Roman Catholic, also appears to have given the radicals ammunition. Mrs. Gandhi is the daughter-in-law and widow of assassinated prime ministers Indira and Rajiv and now leads the opposition Congress Party. Gandhi also toured the violence-torn site of the attacks, saying that her party would demand the dismissal of the BJP state government if it failed to halt the attacks on Christians.

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