If you were asked to name a country where it is dangerous to be a Christian, you would probably name an Islamic country or a dictatorship like China. You probably wouldn’t name the largest democracy in the world, India. Yet some of the most horrific persecution of Christians is taking place in its state of Orissa.
On August 23, a Hindu nationalist known as “Guruji” was shot to death along with four of his followers. While Guruji had many enemies and was mostly likely killed by Maoist guerillas, a local newspaper blamed Christians for his death. The result was a wave of anti-Christian violence that has killed at least 25 people, burned at least 50 churches, and destroyed at least 4,000 Christian homes.
Even more shocking than these numbers is the savagery of the attacks. There are reliable reports of priests being burned alive and nuns being raped. Hindu fanatics were caught trying to poison the water supply at a camp set up for Christians fleeing the violence.
A special target of the Hindu nationalists are former Hindus, especially Dalits, who have converted to Christianity. As Indian journalist Anjalee Lewis has written, the violence against Christians is “linked to the empowerment of the Dalits and tribals.”
Conversion and education has provided them with “dignity” and “freedom from oppressive traditions of caste-based discrimination and slavery.” This, in turn, has prompted a violent response from “dominant castes, who could no longer rely upon them for cheap farm labor or bonded labor.”
Chief among the respondents was Guruji. Like other Hindu nationalists, he absurdly claimed that Dalit conversions to Christianity were “forced.” He and his followers spoke of “[doing] everything possible to protect the Hindu faith in Orissa” and “bringing misguided followers back to the fold.”
The result, according to Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, is a campaign “to eliminate Christians from Orissa.”
It’s a campaign that long predates the recent violence. In 1967, Orissa passed a law against religious conversion despite the Indian constitution’s guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion.
If you’re wondering where the Indian government is in all this, the answer is: on the sidelines—at best. Its tepid response to the December attacks, according to Archbishop Cheenath, left the culprits “emboldened.” As one priest put it, “You can’t trust police and government officials at all levels anymore.”
Lewis says that the only hope for Christians in Orissa and other parts of India is “pressure from overseas.” Christians elsewhere must create what she calls the equivalent of a “free Tibet” campaign on their behalf. At the very least, you need to write or call your congressman or senators to alert them to what’s going on in India.
But most of all, pray for our persecuted brethren. Get your church involved in International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which comes up on November 9.