Western nations have always been interested in leveraging India, but increasingly, it is India that is in the driver’s seat. India is the world’s great hedge against China’s worst vices.
So, some of us are asking: Why then is the Indian government risking this golden moment of international power and prestige by neglecting, and sometimes enabling, the harassment of its ancient and cherished Christian community?
Violence against Christians in India is rapidly increasing, and authorities are doing too little about it. Unfortunately, their nonchalance, intentional or not, is being taken as an ad hoc endorsement by extremists who now have crossed the red line by walking into Christian worship services and conducting their own services. We have not seen anything like this before.
The violence isn’t happening in the shadows either. Recently, a video of extremists attacking a Christian school in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh went viral. There is also footage of extremists attacking a church in Karnataka, where the Christian women were seen both defending their church and confronting the extremist group. The women were adamant that none of them were converted forcefully.
The Catholic archbishop of Bangalore now says that it is difficult to be a Christian at all in the once-safe state of Karnataka. This sentiment is echoed by a number of Indian Christian leaders across the nation, including revered figures such as Mumbai’s famed retired police chief Julio Ribeiro, who fought against the Khalistan insurgency in Punjab.
This year alone, there have been more than 300 violent attacks against Christians across the country, not to mention the constant harassment by government authorities under one pretext or another. Extremists also routinely interrupt services during worship with their Hindu chants. These extremists are not booked or arrested.
The frequency and intensity of these targeted attacks make it impossible for government agencies to profess ignorance. On the rare occasion perpetrators are identified, they are generally allowed to go free.
Make no mistake: Most of the Indian people, whatever their politics, find these attacks abhorrent and inhumane. Yet the government still manages indifference. Are the extremist groups getting their pound of flesh for supporting the political party?
Surely, pluralist India doesn’t want to be known as an anti-Christian nation. The government sometimes argues that pluralism is exactly why it isn’t using its power to protect Christians because its errant leaders continue to accuse Christians falsely of conducting forced conversions.
This isn’t the 18th or 19th century. Christians in India are not trading conversions for rice or monetary benefits. There are no Indian Christian crusaders driving Hindus into a river for forced baptisms. The idea of forced conversions is actually anathema to Indian Christians and most Christians in the modern world.
Nonetheless, if the government really believes Christians are breaking the law in forcing conversions, then the government should seek adjudication through the judicial system. If it truly had some sort of proof, it could convict Indian Christians who are violating the law, instead of allowing bigoted vigilantes to attack women and children violently.
The truth is that India’s Christians mainly work under the letter of the law and judiciously report their activities under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, despite the regularity with which their licenses are aggressively scrutinized simply because they are Christian. Extremist groups have to answer the question: Are Indian Christians full citizens or not? And can they practice their religion, which requires the propagation of their faith, or not? If it is illegal for Christians to propagate their faith, the extremist groups need to come out and say so in order for Christians to know how to deal with this kind of opposition.
I am hopeful that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will remember that his economic mandate came from Hindus, Christians, and other citizens alike. I hope he realizes that India has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by ensuring that all Christians in the country can live their lives, worship, and practice their faith without fear. Sadly, though, in many parts of India, Christians are afraid because of the way extremists are taking the law into their own hands.
There is no place in India’s democracy for incessant campaigns of hate aimed squarely at the Christian community, its churches, its NGOs, and its schools. Instead, we expect protection from the prime minister’s office and also from the home minister's office. In the past, I have personally appealed to the previous home minister, Rajnath Singh, for protection of the Christian community.
On the contrary, India’s Christian community should be celebrated as heroes for their effective economic, social, and educational development programs on behalf of the poor, including and especially during the pandemic. Our Good Shepherd movement has established more than 30 virtual healthcare centers and helped tens of thousands of people across the nation during the COVID-19 crisis.
If Indian Christians are guilty of anything, it is of practicing their faith in Jesus, which continues to attract people from all walks of life.
Does India want Christians to stop believing and practicing their faith? Does India want its Christians to stop feeding the poor? Does India want to gut its democracy by removing the freedom of religion from its constitution?
The hard truth is that this precarious situation is yet another product of India’s ancient struggle with caste. Elite members of Indian society do not believe the poor are capable of deciding for themselves how they see the world and especially what religion to practice. So, surely, if they decide to follow the teachings of Jesus, whether or not they identify as Christians, then they must have been forced.
It isn’t a surprise, of course, that India's poor are inspired by Jesus. From time immemorial, Jesus has been favored by the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the enslaved because Jesus’s teaching offers them freedom and deliverance from every kind of oppression. The great Apostle Paul once stated that not many among Jesus’s followers were of noble birth, rich, or elite. Rather, most were poor, downtrodden, and in need.
The same small group of elites who shut their eyes to the struggle of the lower castes appears to be happy for the lower caste to provide the vigilantes the opportunity to attack Christians. India is better than this.
In a recent interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, on the growing persecution of Christians in India, he asked me, “Why now?” It’s a good question for Modi as well, and it’s a question I hope he addresses for the sake of India’s Christians before Pope Francis visits India at his invitation next year.
At stake is the very fabric of India’s diverse society so painfully and assiduously built by modern India’s fathers, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B.R. Ambedkar. Also at stake are the world’s leading democracies' ability to take a stand against Chinese aggression.
Modi should take the struggle of his country’s Christians into his personal portfolio, and with the Christmas season upon us, he can begin by personally meeting Christian leaders of various denominations and assuring them that this climate of hate will be stopped both at the governmental and local levels. Simply having ceremonial Christmas gatherings with government authorities every year won’t get the job done.
Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India, and president of the All India Christian Council.