MUMBAI/BHUBANESWAR, India — To this day, Kanaka Rekha Nayak still cannot describe what happened to her husband, Parikhit, seven years ago without tears.
An orgy of violence had swept the eastern Indian district of Kandhamal in August 2008 after the slaying of a local Hindu leader was erroneously blamed on the Christian minority, and Nayak’s family of four was caught in it.
They fled to a forest near their village of Tiangia Budedipade and hid for two days, but were found by one of the mobs of Hindu radicals rampaging the countryside. Learning the Nayaks were Baptist Christians, the assailants threw a bicycle chain around Parikhit’s neck and dragged him more than a mile back to town.
In the central square, they demanded that he renounce his Christian faith and embrace Hinduism. The self-declared Baptist preacher refused, whereupon he was beaten, disfigured, gutted, and burned. To grasp the depths of the savagery, it’s unfortunately necessary to be concrete: Nayak’s genitals were sliced off and his intestines ripped out by his frenzied attackers, some of whom draped the intestines around their necks as a macabre war trophy.
“They cut my husband into pieces in front of me,” Kanaka Nayak said in an interview this summer, “covered him in kerosene and set him on fire.”
The mob then turned on her, with rape their intention, but she managed to escape by running back into the forest. The next morning, she made her way to a relief camp called Raika, one of several such places of refuge created in the area during the violent months that ensued, leaving at least 100 dead, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, 50,000 people displaced.
Systematic violence against Christians continues in India to this day, though not often at the appalling scale of the cyclone of cruelty in Kandhamal. An Indian website dedicated to anti-Christian persecution, called Speak Out Against Hate, states that in 2015, there’s been an average of one violent episode every week.
Christians also are targeted in other Asian nations, where their numbers have grown to the point that other faiths, or political powers, feel threatened. Nowhere is the situation more harrowing than North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians languish in concentration camps, but from China and Vietnam to Myanmar and Pakistan, they face a staggering variety of threats.
Even on that landscape, India is a special danger zone. This fact often comes as a surprise for Westerners whose main touchstone for this vast and complex country is the singular example of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great Indian nationalist leader of the 20th century, whose name is often treated as synonymous with the Hindu ideal of nonviolence.
For the Christian minority in India today, it is a cruel distortion. They face daily threats of persecution and pogrom, and the world barely knows it.
Christianity here is seen as largely the domain of the Dalit, the untouchables at the bottom of India’s still powerful system of class divides, and the Tribals, descendants of the country’s indigenous groups. They are often treated as easy and deserving victims of scorn and violence. (The Nayaks were Dalits.)
For other Indians, Christianity is feared and despised as a proselytizing faith — which, in truth, it often is — and thus a threat to convert people away from Hinduism, the dominant national faith. Meeting that threat with force is viewed by some, especially right-wing Hindu militants like those who raged and killed in Kandhamal and whose political patrons now govern the country, as entirely appropriate.
The scale of the persecution and the toll of the persecuted is compounded by sheer numbers. Though Christians are a small minority of all Indians — less than 3 percent – they are a fraction of a vastly populous land, comprising an estimated 24 million people.
For Indians proud of their pluralistic heritage, today’s suffering visited upon Christians and other minorities, especially Muslims, is a source of shame.
“When I grew up, our diversity was grounds for celebration,” said Ram Puniyani, an upper-caste Hindu peace activist based in Mumbai. “Then instead of celebrating diversity we shifted to mere tolerance, and now we’re deep into outright hostility.”
Fear extends to police
Chiliasadu Nikham and his wife Getabail offer stark testimony to Puniyani’s assessment. They’re adult converts to evangelical Christianity who come from the village of Sarle in India’s Nashik district, about an hour outside Mumbai. He works as a day laborer, estimating the family of five’s monthly income at $35.
Recently, Nikham 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. Then three enraged locals attacked him, leaving him bleeding and wounded. When Nikham went to the police, he said they tossed him in jail for six days and charged him with disturbing the peace.
Such assaults, often combined with indifference or outright complicity by police and prosecutors, are stunningly routine.
In March 2015, a Catholic nun in her early 70s was raped during an attack on a convent and school in West Bengal, triggering a sharp rebuke of India’s Hindu-dominated government by Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the national bishops’ conference, who said the country should work to “protect not just cows, but human beings.”
Among other recent victims is Govind Kuram Korram, an 11-year-old boy kidnapped and left to die of hunger in Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, in December 2013 because his Hindu uncle could not accept the family’s conversion to Christianity.
This summer, two Crux reporters visited a township called Manor, composed of a series of rural villages about 60 miles outside Mumbai, meeting evangelical and Protestant Christians who form the most visible minority in what are otherwise largely homogenous communities devoted to subsistence-level rice farming.
In one village, called Kev, a young pastor named Sainath Rawte leads the Jesus for All Nations church. His tiny flock meets in a crude building with a thatched roof and bare concrete floor, where a Sunday service in late July drew about 35 people.
A year earlier, 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 and parade them through the streets of the village. Police complaints filed by Christians afterward never led to any charges.
Even more painful to Rawte, the attackers were neighbors of the victims, in some cases relatives. “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.”
Christians say they fear the police every bit as much as radical Hindu activists, especially as in rural areas the two are often allied.
To illustrate, they tell this story: On July 26, five poor Christians were headed to a hilltop in a forest near their village of Pangalidar, located in eastern India, in search of a reliable mobile phone signal so they could call their children who had moved in search of work. Three of the parents finished their calls and headed home, while two remained.
Shortly after, the three who left were stopped by members of the Central Reserve Police Force, who pointed guns at them and asked what they were doing. The Christians explained they had been calling their children, and that two members of their party were still on the hilltop. They were allowed to go on. A short time later they heard gunshots from the direction of the hilltop.
The two Christians left behind, identified as a man named Dhubaleswar and his wife, never returned. The next morning a group of villagers searched for them, finding only blood stains and pieces of their clothing on the hilltop. Although officially the two are listed as missing, it’s widely believed among Christians in the village that they were killed by the police and their bodies hidden.
Perhaps the most chilling index of how commonplace such incidents have become is the resigned reaction of the couple’s two daughters, as quoted by Sushant Naik, a Protestant leader in the area. The daughters asked him, Naik said, why the police felt it necessary to slaughter both of their parents.
“At least one could have been spared,” they said.
A complex storyline
It would be easier to grasp these trends, and their moral implications, if the experience of religious persecution in Asia presented a straightforward tale of blameless victims and their oppressors. Spending time among India’s harassed Christian minority, however, makes it plain that the storyline is more complex.
In recent decades, Christian growth among these populations has been dramatic, with many Dalits and tribals seeing conversion as a pathway to emancipation and social mobility. Protestant evangelicals and Pentecostals have been especially successful in attracting new members, planting the rural countryside with makeshift churches.
The fear this expansion generates among Hindu nationalists is palpable. Several Indian states recently have adopted anti-conversion laws, and the courts have upheld them.
The charge underlying such restrictive moves — that Christians want to convert people away from the faith of their birth — is, to be frank, often undeniably true.
Many talk openly, even audaciously, about dreams to “Christianize” their neighbors. And although virtually all have experienced religious prejudice, they can nevertheless hold remarkably prejudiced attitudes themselves toward other religions and even other Christians.
In Gundale Village, for instance, Mithun Shinde is a 24-year-old evangelical pastor who in late July 2015 couldn’t even walk to his church because the road had been blocked with barbed wire and wooden barricades by angry Hindus two weeks earlier.
Yet when Shinde was asked 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.
These defiant Christians are often similarly blunt in their attitudes toward other religious groups.
Ravindra Jadhav is the leader of maybe 100 Pentecostal Christians who belong to the Church of the Holy Spirit in another village outside Mumbai called Vikram Garh. A previous location for the church was ransacked by Hindu radicals in 2014, and today his small congregation can’t even meet regularly for fear of reprisals.
Yet Jadhav is not exactly a role model of tolerance himself, among other things openly scorning Catholics.
“They’re idol worshippers,” he said during a Crux interview. “There’s really no difference between Catholics and Hindus, since both pray to idols, both drink, and both quarrel.”
Respect can be found
Intolerance and prejudice are, to be sure, not the only Asian storyline.
Every Wednesday at 4 p.m. in St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Mumbai, thousands of people crowd the large urban shrine for a weekly prayer before an image of the Virgin Mary titled “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” which tradition holds can work miracles.
Pilgrims arrive early, many shuffling down the central aisle of the church on their knees. They remove their shoes in a traditional sign of respect. They sit, stand, and crouch, intently focused on the prayer, and before they leave many festoon the Virgin with floral garlands. Afterward, scores line up at a back door waiting for a priest to come out to offer a final blessing.
Such a scene would represent impressive devotion under any circumstances, but what makes the story especially remarkable is that the vast majority of these pilgrims aren’t Catholics, or even Christians, but faithful Hindus.
That’s one face of contemporary Asia: dazzling tolerance and interfaith respect, rooted in intense spirituality. Yet that respect often sits cheek by jowl with remarkably blatant forms of harassment and oppression.
Seen as threat in China
In China, alleged ties of Christians to Western interests are still seen as a threat by China’s security services and the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Bishop James Su Zhimin, for instance, who heads an officially banned Catholic community in Baoding, is now nearly 80 and has been in prison since October 1997, a span of almost 18 years. The charge that led to his arrest has never been revealed, news of a trial has never been released, and the place of his detention is unknown.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, religious tolerance is a fundamental constitutional principle under the national ideology of Pancasila, which includes democracy, social justice, and the idea of a “just and civilized humanity.”
In practice, those guarantees sometimes ring hollow.
Pakistan bills itself as a partner in the global struggle against terrorism, and in 2008 it took the unprecedented step of appointing a Christian to the cabinet as the country’s first-ever minister of minority affairs.
For his outspoken opposition to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, that minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in March 2011 in Islamabad by a Muslim radical calling him a “blasphemer of Mohammed.”
A devout Catholic, Bhatti, who was 42 at the time of his death, left behind only three items on his small bedside table: a Bible, a rosary, and an image of the Virgin Mary. In an interview shortly before his murder Bhatti had said, “I know Jesus Christ who sacrificed his life for others. I understand well the meaning of the cross. I am ready to give my life for my people.”
The Catholic bishops of Pakistan have petitioned the Vatican to name Bhatti a “martyr and patron of religious freedom,” in effect declaring him a saint.
As Asian societies take their place as centers of global power in the early 21st century, their records on human rights will come in for greater scrutiny. How those societies protect their religious minorities, including Christians, will inevitably be among the question marks.
“For so long, we accused the West of intolerance and bigotry because of the legacy of colonialism,” said Puniyani, the Hindu-born Indian activist. “Now it often seems we’re no better ourselves.”
“We have to get this right,” he said, “for the sake of the victims, and for ourselves.”
Call to make a stand
Until that happens, Christian victims of religious hatred are left to try to make spiritual sense of their experience, and many seem to believe God is calling them to make a stand.
It wasn’t until three days after the brutal killing in Kandhamal that local police agreed to accompany Kanaka Rekha Nayak to the place where her husband’s remains had been abandoned. She was allowed to bury him in an already occupied tomb in the cemetery of a nearby Catholic convent, but the climate of fear was so intense that no priest or minister was willing to preside over the interment.
Thanks to the testimony of their daughter, who’s now 12 but was five at the moment of the murder, 25 men were identified as taking part in Parikhit’s death. Eighteen were criminally charged, but only one is presently in jail, with the others moving about freely in their village.
In late August, Kanaka Nayak visited her husband’s grave to mark the anniversary of his death. She remembered his final words, spoken to his assailants: “Do whatever you want to me, but spare my family!”
“He’s no longer with me,” she had told Crux a month earlier, choking out her words between sobs, “but the Lord has given me the opportunity to share my testimony with others, so that hopefully this doesn’t happen again.”
It did and it has. Despite its unimaginable brutality, Parikhit Nayak’s story was hardly exceptional in that time of violence.
Even a brief visit readily turns up many more, such as Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, a Catholic nun of the Servite order who was in Kandhamal when she and a local priest, the Rev. Thomas Chellen, were dragged into the streets by frenzied attackers shouting “Kill Christians!”
Barwa, the niece of the local Catholic leader, Archbishop John Barwa, said she was raped by at least one of the men in the mob — she lost count when she became unconscious — and then paraded through the streets of the village semi-naked while the mob continued to howl.
Barwa, like her uncle a Tribal, said she now wants to convert her personal trauma into hope.
“Every person in this country should respect the religion of others and the humanity of others,” she said in a Crux interview. “Otherwise, what was my suffering, and the suffering of so many other people, really for?”
Crux Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín contributed to this report.