India: Christians struggle to survive amid COVID-19 lockdown

Christians attend a protest against the killings of Christians in Orissa, in New Delhi August 29, 2008.
Christians attend a protest against the killings of Christians in Orissa, in New Delhi August 29, 2008. | Reuters/Adnan Abidi

In India, the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdown that followed has presented thousands of house church pastors and persecuted Christians with severe challenges.

Persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reports that amid the country’s nationwide lockdown — which Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended until May 3 — pastors have been unable to gather their congregations for worship. As a result, already-struggling church leaders haven't been able to collect support for their families or ministries. 

“My rations will run out in three or four days,” said pastor Radhe Kishan, a church planter who lives with his wife and 11-month-old daughter in a rented house in a rural village located in the Shahajanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

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“About a week ago, a church member gave me five kilos of wheat flour and some lentils,” pastor Kishan told ICC. “We are surviving on that, and it might go for another four days. We have no choice except to trust in God for our food and needs. I am trusting God for His provision.”

Before the pandemic, pastor Kishan visited between four and five villages each week and would share the Gospel with an average of 35 people. “I feel sad that I am unable to meet people to share the Gospel,” he said. “I am also not allowed to do outreach work or to lead worship services. That was a part of my normal routine.”

Another house church pastor from Karnataka told ICC that because he is a Christian, he is not eligible to receive the rations provided by the government.

“The moment I embraced the Christian faith, I lost my eligibility to receive the benefits that the government provides to the poor. It used to be difficult to survive only on the offerings collected on Sunday. Now that the church is completely shut down, I don’t have an income to feed my family,” he said. 

To help persecuted Christians affected by the government's lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, ICC has launched a campaign to provide critical food aid to vulnerable communities, including church planters.

“More than 70% of rural church planters are facing a huge challenge,” the Rev. Prabhu Das, director of Seva Bharat, told ICC. “The majority of these pastors are living in difficult conditions as they do not have an income whatsoever while the churches are closed. They are forced to stay inside their homes, despite not having access to basic needs. These people desperately need food, healthcare, and moral support.”

As of Tuesday, India had reported 31,360 coronavirus cases and 1,008 deaths, or about 0.76 deaths per million.

Christian support organization Open Doors USA estimates that the lives of thousands — if not millions — of persecuted Christians are at risk due to the lockdown, which requires all Indians to shelter-in-homes unless acquiring food or medicine.

Shalom, one of Open Doors’ partners on the ground, told the organization that Jia, a local church pastor, told him he personally knows at “least 20 to 30 pastors who are starving because of the lockdown.”

In cooperation with local churches, Open Doors has launched an initiative to reach persecuted Christians in India who are starving and have less access to healthcare, medicines, and community services because of these measures against coronavirus.

However, Open Doors warns that amid the pandemic, Christians face more opposition than ever from their communities because of their faith. According to the organization, numerous reports have surfaced of Christians being falsely accused, threatened and attacked in recent weeks. 

“There are many [Christians in India] who are [able] to use online streaming of worship, sermons and prayers, but the majority of the Christians in the rural areas are facing threats and persecution amid the lockdown,” a local partner told the organization. 

“We are receiving news of persecution incidents from many areas, even in this situation where people have been ordered to stay inside their homes. In fact, we believe that during this phase of lockdown, Christians are suffering even more than before, since most of them have to now combat economic problems as well as the opposition and hatred from the community.”

Another pastor, Pastor Mallesh, told ICC that Christians are also facing increased pressure from Hindu radicals during the time of lockdown.

“The radicals are looking for an opportunity to inform the authorities that I have violated the lockdown and falsely accuse me of opening the church," he said. 

Another local Christian expressed fear that Hindu extremists might use this time to pressure Christians to become Hindus to help solve their financial woes, adding, “The current crisis makes the Indian church more vulnerable to these tactics.”

Open Doors, which ranks India at No.10 on its 2020 World Watch List of countries where it's most difficult to be a Christian, warns that many incidents of persecution are likely going unnoticed due to the lockdown and poor connectivity.

The group encourages Christians worldwide to pray that God will protect His people in India; that Christians will be able to be salt and light, even in places where they are persecuted; that believers will have opportunities to pray and read the Bible without being harassed or abused, and that God will provide for His people who are starving and in need of financial help.

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