PATTAYA, Thailand – A solemn atmosphere descended upon a room full of culturally diverse evangelical leaders on Wednesday as disturbing accounts of religious persecution poured forth from those living in anti-Christian hotspots.
One by one, panelists shared stories of attacks against Christians in their country that included atrocious acts such as beheadings, gang rape, and genocide.
Stories were especially poignant because of the speakers' closeness to the actual persecution, of which some were personally experienced.
The Rev. Godfrey Yogarajah of Sri Lanka, the new director of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission, shared that just a few days prior to his arrival in Thailand for the WEA General Assembly, one of the WEA pastors in his country of Sri Lanka was murdered and the pastor's body thrown in a river.
A Vietnamese pastor named "Daniel" (full name cannot be disclosed for security reason) on the panel spoke about his father, a pastor, who was imprisoned for six years for his faith following the communist takeover in 1975.
The Vietnamese government now continues its persecution of his family for a second generation by denying Daniel citizenship because of his leadership in a major house church organization. His wife has to carry the burden of representing his family in every legal procedure.
But perhaps the most emotionally-charged testimony came from the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, the general secretary of Evangelical Fellowship of India and Asia Evangelical Alliance.
Howell went beyond informing the evangelical leaders in the audience about the recent anti-Christian rampage in India to explain the reason behind Hindus' hatred of Christians.
Hindu nationalist political parties believe and promote an ideology that promotes Hindu nation, Hindu culture, and Hindu people – "nationalism linked to Hindu religion," said Howell.
"If you are not a Hindu, by definition, you are an anti-national," he states. "So the hatred of Christian is hatred of Christian identity. They don't like us not because of what we do – they definitely hate what we do – but also who we are."
"They want to turn India into a Hindu nation, that is why Christians are hated," the evangelical leader said.
But more importantly, Christians are hated because they empower the poor, which is the "root cause of any hatred that they incur," he said.
Empowering the poor Dalit disturbs the caste system, which defines the group formerly known as untouchables as impure.
"A Dalit can never become a Brahmin (the highest position among the four social classifications of Brahminical Hinduism). It is his fate that he is condemned to be an impure Dalit. He should die a Dalit," Howell explained.
However, the Gospel empowers and liberates Dalits when they become a follower of Jesus Christ, which angers the Brahmins.
"In 1857, every single Christian in Delhi was slaughtered – every single Christian. There was a time in Delhi where every single Muslim was put to death," recalled a visibly emotional Howell in a loud but trembling voice.
"In 1984, when Mrs. [Indira] Ghandi (India's first and to date only female Prime Minister) was killed, 3,000 Sikhs were butchered – 3,000 of them on the streets of Delhi," he recalled. "They have killed the Christians, they have killed the Muslims, they have killed the Sikhs, and now it is the time of Christians to be killed."
He cited reports claiming that 50,000 Indian Christians have been displaced because of the violence, 30,000 of them live in relief camps – some, as reported by news agencies, sleeping without blankets – and over 4,000 Christian homes, churches and businesses have also been destroyed.
Some Christian groups say nearly 100 Christians have been killed in the attacks, although the media reports significantly lower figures – around 40 to 50 deaths.
"Persecution continued for two months unabated, uncontrolled," Howell said angrily. "Government is a participator to the persecution that is taking place. Police stand as silent spectators. Nuns have been gang raped in the present of police."
The current anti-Christian campaign is said to be the worst in the 60 years of India's independence. India is the largest democratic country to experience such a large scale persecution of religious minority.
Though Hindu radicals accuse Christians of only serving the poor to convert them, Howell vehemently denied the allegations.
"Christians care for the poor for the sake of the love of Jesus Christ, not because we go out to convert," he asserts. "Propagation machine say Christians serve to convert. If that was the case, our percentage should be 40, 60 or 80 percent – that's not the case."
India's population is currently comprised of 80.5 percent Hindus, 13.4 percent Muslims, 2.3 percent Christians, and 1.9 percent Sikhs, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Johann Candelin, the outgoing WEA director of the Religious Liberty Commission, offered recommendations on steps that evangelicals should take to respond to persecution.
They include: • Having a stronger Kingdom of God identity that seeks to promote God's kingdom instead of an organization or denomination • Meeting government officials regularly to present who evangelicals are and ask how the global network of evangelicals can serve the nation. If evangelicals don't go to the government, Candelin warned, it's likely that others will paint a negative picture who evangelicals are • Arranging global demonstrations where dozens of protests outside embassies around the world take place on the same day • Learning to genuinely work with Muslims, people of other faiths, as well as Christians from other traditions and stop seeing them as enemies or "the others," but rather as real brothers
Other panelists, meanwhile, discussed the dire situation in Iraq, including Christian women who were being kidnapped, raped and beheaded.
The World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly, which began on Oct. 25, was scheduled to conclude on Thursday, Oct. 30.