India: Tribal animists burn Bibles, church, threaten to 'chop' Christians 'to pieces'

A group of Christians meet together near their rebuilt church in Kandhamal.
A group of Christians meet together near their rebuilt church in Kandhamal. | John Fredricks

Tribal animists wielding axes surrounded a church building in eastern India and threatened to “chop” Christians “to pieces” before burning the church to the ground amid escalating persecution in the south Asian country. 

According to Morning Star News, animists in Odisha state’s Perigaon village, Rayagada District, staged the attack on Dec. 1 after they raided Christians' homes where they seizes and burned Bibles five days earlier. Animists worship gods based on ancestors, spirits, and nature.

“After we concluded the prayers and community lunch service [on Dec. 1], a batch of around 15 tribal men came with axes, surrounded the church and threatened that they will chop us into pieces,” pastor Bibudhan Pradhan told Morning Star News.

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The assailants surrounded the pastor and his wife as they were trying to return to their home in another town, he said.

“They took us inside the village and held us hostage for more than four hours,” Pradhan said. “They abused us in vulgar language, words that I can’t utter with my mouth, and threatened us that their gods and goddesses will swallow us alive for propagating Christianity in an Adivasi [indigenous tribal] hamlet.”

Eventually, the assailants released the couple after ordering them to stop holding worship services and never again enter the village. That night, the animists set the mud-and-bamboo structure on fire, the pastor said.

“Christians from the Adivasi hamlet reside about 1 kilometer far from the church site,” Pradhan said. “But the fire spread faster, and within 10 to 15 minutes the roof made of dry grass shattered, and the bamboos also caught fire.”

A few days earlier, a gang of drunken animists raided the homes of several Christians as they slept, destroying any Bibles they discovered. 

“They were horrified by what happened the night before,” he said. “The drunk men abused the Christian families in filthy language and forcefully searched their homes for Bibles. The Christians tried hard to resist them to no avail. They gathered the Bibles from Christian homes at one spot at the center of the village, poured kerosene and lit fire.”

The animists reportedly ignored their pleas to calm down and spare their Bibles, he said, adding that their complaints to the village elders were ignored. 

“But the elders of Perigaon village justified the act of burning Bibles and in return abused me in filthy language,” he said. “They said that because of me the village has lost its rich culture and values, and that I had introduced a foreign faith, and that my presence and the Christian prayers in the village had hurt them deeply.

“They also issued threats that they would go to any extent to put an end to the spread of Christianity in the village.”

When Pradhan and the church elders filed a complaint with police about the Dec. 1 and Nov. 26 attacks, authorities ignored their pleas for help and instead forced them to sign a document prohibiting them from holding worship services in the village.

“On Dec. 2 the officer forcefully took our thumbprints on a document that was written in Odiya that there will not be any Christian prayers in Perigaon village,” he said. “He was very biased and refused to listen to our pleas.”

Eventually, police arrested the assailants and briefly held them in custody before releasing them. 

“No cases were registered against the assailants, who confessed that they had set the Bibles ablaze, held the pastor hostage and later burned down the church,” one Christian, Hananiyo Lima, told Morning Star News.

Church members have decided not to take further legal action, Pradhan said, as villagers threatened to expel the Christians’ children from government welfare hostels and forbid burials within village limits.

Pratap Chinchani, an attorney for legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom-India, criticized police for turning against the victims and forcing them to sign official documents saying in essence, “There won’t be Christian prayers in the village — you move out of Rayagada and conduct your worship service elsewhere,” he said.

“How can police restrain the pastor from visiting the village? This kind of approach is illegal, and it must be legally challenged,” Chinchani told Morning Star News. “This inaction of police must be challenged in a court of law. As ADF-India, we are ready to incur the travel expenses for the victims to travel down to Cuttack, where the High Court is located [about 280 miles from Rayagada].”

Odisha’s population of 4.1 million is 93.6 percent Hindu, 2.77 percent Christian and 2.17 percent Muslim, according to the 2011 census.

India is ranked as the 10th worst country when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List

Christian persecution has steadily increased across India since the election of President Narendra Modi in 2014 and the rise of his Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the political arm of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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