MUMBAI, India – One bishop in India is warning that “democracy is in danger, and the principles of secularism at risk” after the latest anti-Christian incident in the Hindu-majority nations.
Bishop Gerald J. Mathias of Lucknow spoke to Crux after a Christian pastor and a group of worshippers were attacked in Shahjahanpur, located in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state.
The pastor from the southern state of Tamil Nadu was holding a prayer service on Jan. 3, when members of the Bajrang Dal – a militant youth group linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group – attacked the group and coercing them into chanting Hindu religious slogans and insults to Jesus.
“They said if we don’t say it, they would kill us and started hitting us. And then they called the police,” the pastor told The Hindu.
The RSS has close associations with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014.
The pastor and four others were then charged under Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law.
Mathias said this law, and similar laws in several other Indian states, violates the principles of religious freedom in the country’s constitution.
“The Indian Constitution enshrines freedom to practice, profess and propagate one’s faith, and this arrest is misuse and abuse of the law,” the bishop told Crux.
“Even the charitable apostolate of the Catholic Church – which is without discrimination of caste or creed – can be misconstrued as conversion activities: Any good that we do can be viewed through their prism of allurement activities,” he continued.
“Any convention can be disrupted by vigilante groups. Even people attending a prayer meeting can be falsely accused of conversion activities taking place. Democratic freedom guaranteed in the constitution is not followed in our country,” Mathias added.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, often storming into villages and leading “reconversion” ceremonies in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.
These pressures on Christians, which also affect Muslims and other religious minorities, are part of what observers describe as a broad program for the “saffronization” of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meaning an attempt to impose Hindu values and identity while squeezing out rival faiths.
Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India, with nearly 200 million people. However, only about 350,000 Christians live in the state, a miniscule 0.18 percent of the population. By comparison, Christians make up nearly 2.5 percent of the whole of India’s population.
Sajan K. George, the president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said the rise of anti-conversion laws in BJP-ruled states in India “clearly that the secular fabric of the country is being systematically destroyed.”
“This new ordinance mainly envisages that no person shall convert, either directly or indirectly from one religion to another by use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage nor shall any person abet, convince or conspire such conversion. [This] emboldens vigilante groups to harass, intimidate and physically and verbally abuse Christians including women, and children,” George told Crux.
“Hinduvta (Hindu nationalist) extremists use the anti-conversion laws to falsely accusing Christians of forcefully conversion activities,” he added.
He noted that the 2011 census showed that while Christians are only 0.18 percent of the population in Uttar Pradesh, indus making up nearly 80 percent.
“So where is the fear of conversions?” George asked.
He said the entire Christian community is targeted, but the most at risk of harassment and assaults by extremists are Pentecostal Christians who gather in ‘house churches’ and are under constant surveillance.
“Most often the administration and police are mute spectators,” he said.
In the spring, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom asked the U.S. State Department to add India to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for religious freedom violations, although the State Department failed to do so.