A spate of new episodes of violence against Christians in India is stoking fears that the Hindu nationalist Modi government is ushering in an era of heightened persecution.
The violence has not been localized to one specific area, but has occurred throughout the country. In the western Indian state of Goa this week, unidentified marauders profaned a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in a village parish, striking and damaging it. In the state of Kerala, in south India, a Christian cemetery in the district of Pathanamthitta was vandalized, with graves and tombstones smashed on two consecutive days and graffiti written across the cemetery wall.
In Mangalore, in the state of Karnataka, in central India, assailants hurled a volley of stones at a Catholic prayer hall on the outskirts of the city, breaking its windows. According to local Christians, the anti-Christian violence is meant “to create panic and insecurity in society.”
According to a forum of Christian NGOs, “the attacks and the frequent acts of vandalism against Christian targets in different parts of the country are worrisome.” Most distressing is the seeming apathy of the ruling Hindu government, which, in theory, should “have the task of stopping the violence, ensuring peace and harmony in society, and protecting the rule of law and freedom of religion.”
In the state of Orissa the Christian community has been on alert after the announcement of a jubilee celebration by the fundamentalist Hindu organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The celebration is taking place Saturday in the Kandhamal district, which was the theater of anti-Christian pogroms in 2007-2008.
One of the people expected to attend the event was the controversial leader of the movement, Praveen Tagodia. When the Odisha government banned his presence in an effort to preserve the peace, the VHP called for a day-long shutdown of the district, resulting in businesses and shops remaining closed, with shutters drawn.
The prohibition came after Togadia appealed to religious minorities to convert to Hinduism at a public rally at Patharkandi in Karimganj district last Wednesday. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi said that Togadia was an “unwanted guest” and said that he was only coming to set the state “on fire.”
“There is fear and uncertainty not only in Kadhamal, but also in the local districts,” said Father Ajay Singh, a Catholic priest and human rights activist. What Christians fear is a repetition of the terrible anti-Christian violence that took place seven years ago, after unfounded accusations that Christians had been responsible for the death of the extremist VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was later learned that his killers had been Maoist communists.
The violence, which was the worst instance of anti-Christian attacks in India’s post-independence history, lasted 8 weeks and saw numerous brutal murders and rapes. There were 91 reported deaths and numerous permanently wounded, along with the destruction of some 300 churches, convents, schools, and institutes of assistance. The assault was so extreme it caused an estimated 55,000 to flee from their homes.
The religious tensions in India have been further exacerbated by recent declarations of leaders of another fundamentalist Hindu group, the RSS, denigrating Saint Teresa di Calcutta, a venerated figure in India. During a recent ceremony in Bharatpur, the leader Mohan Bhagwat said that Mother Teresa served the poor out of impure motives, looking only to make converts to Christianity.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome