MUMBAI – More than 2,000 Indian Christians rallied on an historical site in the national capital of New Delhi Feb. 19, staging a rare public protest against hate crimes and discrimination directed at Christians across the country.

Organizers said Christians have staged such public rallies in the capital city against the harassment they suffer only five times since national independence was declared in 1947, and that a rising tide of discrimination has compelled them to act.

According to the United Christian Forum (UCF), an inter-denominational watchdog group that monitors anti-Christian persecution, there were 598 reported incidents of violence against Christians in 21 states in 2022. That total, the group claimed, represents a 400 percent spike from 2014, where there were just 147 such episodes recorded.

According to the UCF analysis, the incidents included intimidation, mob violence, brutal assaults, vandalism of places of worship, sexual violence, the closure of churches, social ostracism, denial of burial for the dead, and false reports of proselytism and forced conversions under the country’s anti-conversion laws.

The top five states for anti-Christian harassment, according to the watchdog group, are Uttar Pradesh (the country’s most populous state, with 200 million residents) with 186 reported incidents, Chhattisgarh with 132, Jharkhand with 51, Karnataka with 37 and Tamil Nadu with 33.

Organizers said the aim of the Feb. 19 protest was to compel the national government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party, as well as the country’s Supreme Court and civil society, to pay attention. It was staged at Jantar Mantar, a famed astronomical observatory in New Delhi originally built in the 18th century.

Protestors tied black bands around their arms during the rally to symbolize mourning for targeted hate and violence against Christians.

The UCF report also claims that a total of 74 anti-conversion cases were filed against Indian Christians in 2022, of which 56 alone were in Uttar Pradesh. According to the report, Uttar Pradesh has reported the highest number of Christians (332) arrested last year, followed by Karnataka with 40, Madhya Pradesh with 21, and Uttarakhand with 17 arrests.

Around 79 Christian bodies, including the Baptist Council of Churches, the United Pentecostal Church – North East India, the Manipur Evangelical Lutheran Church, and others participated in the protest.

“Today we’ve gathered here peacefully at Jantar Mantar because we want to share the anguish of our fellow citizens who also follow the Christian faith in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and so many other places where their basic fundamental rights are being snatched,” said Michael William, president of the United Christian Forum.

“We are standing up on their behalf… We are also going to be submitting a memorandum to the President of India,” he said.

Bhaskar, a 45-year-old pastor at New Life Church, said the protest was intended to force India to live up to its promises.

“As per our constitution, it is our freedom to exercise and profess whatever we believe in,” he said. “We are asking our government for protection because there is a lot of killing of Christians and we are also wrongfully accused of religious conversion.”

Senior journalist and human right activist John Dayal, speaking from the podium, said, “The state machinery has betrayed us, and we appeal to the government to take cognizance of the targeted attacks against the Christian community in several states, including Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.”

Dayal mentioned the denial of burial grounds to Christians, attacks on churches during prayer meetings on Sundays, and a recent ultimatum of ghar wapsi (so-called “reconversion” to Hinduism) delivered to tribal Christians in Chhattisgarh, which resulted in their eviction from villages, compelling them to take refuge in nearby forests.