MUMBAI, India — I spent much of this week among some of the most victimized Christians on the planet: members of India’s tribal underclass. A colleague and I met some in Mumbai and others in a township called Manor, composed of a series of rural villages about 60 miles outside the city.
A “tribal,” in Indian parlance, means one of the country’s native original inhabitants. They’re about 9 percent of the population, some 105 million people, and they’re among the most impoverished and marginalized people you’ll ever meet.
In terms of Christian tribals, those we met are Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals. I’ve formed three impressions from getting to know them:
- They’re subject to appalling, almost inhuman abuse. Compounding the tragedy, their isolation often means nobody cares or even knows it’s happening.
- The charge many Hindus in India level against Christians — that they want to convert people — is undeniably true of these folks. They talk openly, even audaciously, about dreams to “Christianize” their areas.
- Although virtually all have experienced religious prejudice, they can nevertheless hold remarkably prejudiced attitudes themselves towards other religions and even fellow Christians.
From a storytelling point of view, it would be easier if these three things weren’t true simultaneously, so that one could tell a straightforward tale of innocents and their oppressors. Unfortunately that’s not the case, and it does no favors to the cause of fighting religious persecution to pretend otherwise.
To begin with, there’s no doubt tribal believers endure horrific brutality. A typical example comes from the “Jesus for All Nations” church in Kev village, led by a young pastor named Sainath Rawte.
Crux reporters John L. Allen Jr. and Inés San Martín, along with Allen’s wife Shannon Levitt, with members of the “Jesus for All Nations” church in Kev village outside Mumbai, India. Pastor Sainath Rawte is on the far right. (Photo for Crux by Nirmala Carvalho)
The village is made up of subsistence-level rice farmers, where monthly income for a family of four or five is around $45. Its tiny band of Christians meets in a crude building with a thatched roof and bare concrete floor, where last Sunday’s service drew about 35 people.
In June 2014, church members had gathered for prayer and fasting when an angry mob of 50 Hindus showed up and began shouting insults such as, “We’ll kill you and let Jesus raise you from the dead!” and, “We don’t want the Christian god here!”
Hindus burst into the room, grabbed Rawte, and began slapping and punching him. They also roughed up the women, threatening to strip them naked and parade them through the streets of the village. As is commonplace, police complaints filed by Christians afterward never led to any charges.
To add insult to injury, the attackers were neighbors of these Christians, in some cases relatives and family members.
“Every person in this church has been hassled at some point, and two have been badly beaten,” Rawte said. “I’m sure I’ll be attacked again … living here, you expect it.”
Although nothing excuses such violence, it’s not as if Hindu anxiety is inexplicable.
It’s often stoked by a sense that Christians are fishing for converts, an explosive accusation in India, given memories of abuses associated with Western colonialism. Several states have adopted anti-conversion laws, and courts have upheld their right to do so.
Mainstream Christian groups usually reject charges of proselytism, expressing great respect for other faiths and for freedom of conscience. Not so these Evangelicals and Pentecostals, who suffer no such diplomatic inhibitions.
In Gundale Village, we met Mithun Shinde, 24, an Evangelical pastor who can’t even walk to his church because the road was blocked with barbed wire and wooden barricades by angry Hindus two weeks ago.
Yet when I ask Shinde how he imagines the future 10 years from now, he doesn’t hesitate: “I’ll have baptized this entire village,” he says.
Does that include the Hindu agitators currently hassling him?
“I guarantee it,” he says with a smile.
In a similar fashion, these defiant Christians often don’t pull any punches in terms of their attitudes toward other religious groups.
For instance, Ravindra Jadhav, leader of maybe 100 Pentecostal Christians who belong to the Church of the Holy Spirit in a village called Vikram Garh, clearly isn’t wild about Catholics.
“They’re idol worshippers,” he said. “There’s really no difference between Catholics and Hindus, since both pray to idols, both drink, and both quarrel.”
When it comes to Hindus, reactions can be even stronger.
I asked members of Shinde’s community to imagine a situation in which they were the majority, and Hindus the minority. Would Hindus be welcome to put up a temple in a village they dominated?
“Let them build someplace else,” one man bluntly declared. “We wouldn’t want them here.”
None of this, of course, justifies the persecution Christians suffer, which has intensified in several ways since the election of a Hindu-backed government last year. It’s a major human rights challenge, one the Indian government and the international community urgently need to address.
What it does suggest, however, is that religious persecution can be a maddeningly complex story. Part of the picture is that people can suffer terrible abuse, and yet, under the right circumstances, you can also imagine them as abusers.
If that insight complicates the storyline, it may also be key to promoting tolerance over the long haul. Ultimately, it confirms that the fault in terms of religious prejudice isn’t just in our stars; it’s also in ourselves.
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Christianity without the pomp and circumstance
In the Western mind, Christianity has long been associated with power and wealth. If you want to see how the faith is lived when those things are glaringly absent, however, there may be no better place than India.
On Thursday, a colleague and I sat down with seven tribal Christians from villages in the Nashik District, located about 100 miles outside Mumbai. All belong to Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, and all have experienced violence and intimidation.
The meeting took place in one of Mumbai’s poorest neighborhoods, at a small Assemblies of God church that itself carries the scars of religious hatred. In 2000, it was stormed by Hindu radicals connected to a nearby temple, leaving the upper level of the church demolished. No one has been prosecuted for the assault.
Abhimanyu Tulsiram Pawar and his wife Mangala, from Salher village, were typical of the group.
Abhimanyu Tulsiram Pawar and his wife Mangala from Salher village in India’s Nashik district. (Photo for Crux by Nirmala Carvalho)
Now 32, Mangala converted to Christianity at the age of 17. She said neighbors began accusing her of following a “foreign religion” and shunning her.
Four years ago, she said she was heading for a shop in another village after a prayer meeting when two Hindu radicals grabbed her, punched her in the face, chest, and stomach, and yelled at her to never come back.
When she went to a local hospital for treatment, she said she was turned away. She reverently showed me a handwritten note from a physician describing her injuries — a piece of paper, by the way, which she cannot read herself.
Abhimanyu, her husband, calls himself an “itinerant preacher.” On June 14, he said, he was ambushed by a Hindu activist on a motorcycle who punched and kicked him while shouting that he’d be killed if he didn’t get out of the area.
Kakadu Boshin Borde lives in another village called Jad with his second wife, Shantibai. A day laborer, Kakadu said that nine years ago he and his first wife were attacked by a small group of radicals wielding sticks.
Chilya Sadu Nikam, 44, and his wife Gitabai, 40, come from the same village as the Pawars, and they, too, are adult converts to Christianity.
Recently, Nikam said, his sister wanted to become Christian, but her neighbors wouldn’t accept the choice, forcing her to go through a “reconversion” ceremony to Hinduism. At the same time, he said, three enraged locals attacked him, leaving him bleeding and wounded.
When Nikam went to the police, he said they tossed him in jail for six days and then charged him with the equivalent of disturbing the peace. That triggered a six-year court case, which drained his meager resources even though it never produced a conviction.
Heartbreakingly, he handed me a set of court papers he believed described his situation. They turn out to a legal brief about a property dispute that has nothing to do with him, which had been given to Nikam, whether by accident or on purpose, by a bureaucrat when he requested his documents.
Rama Soma Pawar, 58, is from Pathave Digar, a village located in Satana Taluka of Nashik district. He looks two decades older than his actual age, with a glass eye and a limp related to years of work breaking up stones along rural roadways.
He said that he became a Christian in the 1970s, and for most of the next 30 years was unable to pray in his own village because his neighbors wouldn’t tolerate it.
“They said it was because of the noise we made when we worshipped, the singing,” he said, but made it clear that was basically a pretext for intolerance.
Asked if he was hurt that his friends and neighbors wouldn’t let him express his faith for so long, Pawar smiled and said: “At least it wasn’t just me … misery loves company.”
While these tribal people said things have become calmer on the watch of an especially vigilant official of the state minorities commission, across India such incidents are stunningly common both in terms of the violence and the impunity for the perpetrators.
If you want to see Christianity without the pomp and circumstance, in other words, this is it.
For the record, these Indian tribals are far more representative of the norm for the 2.3 billion Christians on the planet today — two-thirds of whom live in the developing world, usually in poverty — than the Westerners who tend to dominate public images of the faith.
The next time you’re tempted to think that Christians have too much money and celebrity to be the victims of persecution, try to remember that the typical Christian today isn’t Pat Robertson or Pope Francis. It’s Rama Pawar and his friends.