MUMBAI, India – A mob of around 500 people attacked a Christian church in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand on Sunday, beating up people and vandalizing the place of worship.
Witnesses say the attackers shouted “Jai shri Ram” and “Vande Mataram” – both Hindu slogans – as they invaded the church located in city of Roorkee.
The mob accused missionaries of carrying out the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.
“They manhandled, abused and hurled wild allegations of religious conversions. For over two decades we have been organizing prayers, mass meetings and philanthropic activities from the prayer house,” N. Wilson told the New Indian Express.
Over 200 people were charged with rioting, theft, trespassing and voluntarily causing hurt under different sections of Indian Penal Code.
Uttarakhand is on the border with Nepal and Tibet and has a population of 10 million and is 83 percent Hindu. Muslims make up the largest religious minority, with Christians comprising just 0.37 percent of the population.
On Sept. 24, the state government ordered local officials to identify “outsiders” living in the state and set up a special committee to “resolve communal issues” stemming from a “rise in population of a community.”
“It has come to the notice of the government that in certain areas of the state due to too much increase in population, demographic changes have occurred resulting in migration by some communities from those areas. No only this, there is also an apprehension of disturbance in communal harmony,” said a statement from the government.
The state government said it would prepare lists of “outsiders” with a criminal record as well as look into land sales to people who are not from the state.
Observers say these provisions were aimed at the Muslim community.
Uttarakhand is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has also led the national government since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
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.
The BJP state president for Uttarakhand and government spokesperson, Madan Kaushik, offered a defense of those who attacked the church.
“Those involved in the incident were actually residents of the same colony who were angry at the conversions that used to take place in the Roorkee church. The incident is actually a neighborhood matter that has been blown out of proportion,” Kaushik said, according to a report in The Wire.
Father Babu Joseph, the former spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the attack was part of a “growing trend” in the country.
“The violence unleashed by certain people on a community of Christians peacefully conducting their Sunday worship in their own residence is the ugliest display of hooliganism,” he told Crux.
“Everyone in this country has his or her constitutional right to worship whichever God they believe in, and the state should do all within its power to protect this right of citizens. Anyone who violates this fundamental right of the citizens should be brought to book so that communal peace and amity are safeguarded,” the priest added.
“Unfortunately, of late there is a growing trend in several parts of the country where some lawless elements are out in the open to intimidate and harass people of the miniscule Christian community under the pretext of preventing religious conversion,” he continued.
“And it’s also the experience of several Christian groups targeted that instead of the perpetrators of the crime being booked the hapless Christians are falsely implicated and cases registered on them,” he said, referring to several recent incidents where the victims of attacks by Hindu nationalists were then arrested for “forced conversion.”
He praised the police in Roorkee for actually charging the perpetrators of Sunday’s violence, as opposed to the victims, calling a “welcome change.”
“We wish the law enforcing agencies take this case to its logical end and ensure exemplary punishment to the law breakers,” Joseph said.