A massive crackdown on house churches by radical Hindu groups has led to the jailing of at least eight Christians on charges of forced conversion in the Lakhimpur Khere district of Uttar Pradeshafter, according to the persecution advocacy group International Christian Concern.
Pastor Ram Kumar told ICC that he and another pastor named Gokran were assaulted by a mob of angry Hindus during a prayer service on Sept. 15.
When police arrived, Kumar said he and the other pastor were arrested, but not the perpetrators of the attack.
“We were around 50 people worshiping in a little hut, all of a sudden a mob of 20 Hindu radicals stormed into the hut while shouting at us using filthy and abusive language dragged me and pastor Gokran out of the hut and started to beat us,” Kumar alleges.
“[A]nd later, the police arrived and took both of us to the police station and then sent us to the jail.”
According to the ICC, both pastors were charged with blasphemy under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code banning “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
The pastors were released on bail last Friday, five days after their arrest.
Kumar told the watchdog group that he embraced Christ about five years ago after his son was healed from an “immovable condition” caused by a fatal disease. Over time, more and more people joined Kumar for prayers in his home.
“The number grew in two years’ time from one family to 50 people. Three years ago we decided to meet on Sundays. Since then, we have been worshiping in the same hut where I live with my family,” Kumar explained.
Kumar’s congregation is not alone. According to another pastor in the district named Brijraj, there has been a trend of attacks on churches in the district. He said “all the pastors in the district are on alert and the entire Christian community in a deep despair.”
ADF India, a Christian legal ministry that advocates for religious freedom, has reported extensively on crimes committed against Christians in the country.
Along with its partners, ADF India operates an online database documenting verified incidents of Christian persecution in India.
There have been several occasions in August and September where churches and Christian communities in Uttar Pradesh have had their prayer services disrupted.
Many incidents in India’s fourth-largest state accrued on Aug. 23 and 25.
On Aug. 25, the database reported on a pastor who was arrested in Lakhimpur Khere after a mob of 20 people stormed a prayer service and accused him of conversion by allurement. That same day, the database also reported that Hindutva extremists and police demanded that a pastor in Bareilly stop conducting prayer services. They told the pastor to obtain permission from the subdivision before continuing to hold prayer services.
There were two other documented incidents that occurred that day, one involved a group of religious extremists who attacked and abused a pastor during prayer service at a church in Saharanpur. In the other incident, the database relayed that a pastor and a congregant were arrested at his home church in Jamalpur and taken to the Shahbad Police Station based on a complaint made by Hindutva extremists that the pastor was converting people by allurement.
Two days earlier on Aug. 23, two pastors from Punjab traveled to a church in Uttar Pradesh. They were accused of conducting fraudulent conversions and were reportedly arrested.
Also on Aug. 23, a pastor meeting with congregants in the Sirsiya village was assaulted by local villagers who stripped him of his clothes and called the police. The police ultimately took the pastor and his family to the police station.
In another incident on Aug. 20, a pastor who was conducting a weekly prayer meeting at a Christian person’s house in Jaunpur was accused by a mob of 40 Hindus of carrying out fraudulent religious conversions. The pastor and another believer were taken to the police station.
“Despite the fact that Indian law allows for freedom of religion, penal codes like 295A are being abused against Christian minorities,” an ICC press release reads. “Religious minorities continue to face hostile conditions at the hands of Hindu radical groups, often associated with the Pro-Hindu Bharathiya Janatha Party.”
ADF India reported in its July Violence Monitor that there were at least seven incidents of mob violence that occurred in Uttar Pradesh that month, including a mob assault on two young boys for holding a prayer meeting at their house.
Since 2014 when the Hindu nationalist BJP rose to power in India, there has been a drastic rise in Hindu extremist persecution against Christians and other religious minorities.
According to the online resource Map violence, there have been over 1,400 incidents of persecution against Christians in India since 2014.
Hindu mobs often resort to violence and accuse Christian leaders of forced conversion, an act that is considered a crime in seven Indian states.
Although Uttar Pradesh is not one of those states, Hindus instead accuse religious minorities of violating the nation’s blasphemy laws.
The ICC held a congressional briefing on the rise of Hindu extremism on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
During the briefing, ADF International’s Sean Nelson said there have been at least 219 incidents of persecution against Christians through the first eight months of 2019.
Sunita Viswanath, the co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, condemned the rise of Hindu extremism in India.
“We are alarmed by the chilling repression of open debate and political expression happening in Indian civil society today,” she said. “This suppression and violence are taking place in the name of a Hinduism we do not recognize and cannot accept.”