Missionaries in northern India say Hindu extremists are increasingly trying to entrap them with trumped-up accusations of forced conversions. But the rise in persecution isn’t dissuading true converts, who are turning to Christ in larger numbers, according to new census data.
People have the freedom to change their religion in India, but forced conversions are illegal.
“I received a call from this lady who said, ‘I have read about Christ, and I want to change my religion,'” said missionary Kanak Chauhan (not his real name). “She was pushing me to say something like, ‘I will help you to change your religion,’ and once I say that, it can become a problem in India.”
Chauhan told Christian Aid Mission (CAM) people call about once a week trying to goad him into saying something that could get him in trouble with authorities in Chandigarh, where officials are especially hostile toward religious conversions. Chandigarh serves as the capital city of the states of Punjab and Haryana.
“We try to use wise words, so instead of ‘changing religion,’ we say it’s not about religion, it’s about the heart,” he said. “We have to be very careful. I will not say what they’re trying to get me to say. I will say, ‘Okay, we can talk about this, just come to meet us, and we can sit and we can talk.’ If they are genuine, they will come and meet me. They never show up. They try a lot of these techniques and tricks.”
Christians are allowed “to profess their faith,” but cannot “convert somebody, coerce somebody, or lure someone to convert,” said Raju Sharma, CAM’s South Asia director.
But Hindu extremists increasingly use the law to falsely accuse Christians. Electoral victories for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014 emboldened hardline Hindus. One group attempted to raise funds to hold a reconversion ceremony for Christians and Muslims on Christmas Day last year. Some participants of similar ceremonies say they were pressured or coerced to return to Hinduism.
Christians in the north even face violent persecution in an attempt to limit the spread of the Gospel. In mid-November, Hindu extremists attacked a Pentecostal congregation during a worship service, beating parishioners with sticks and demanding they return to Hinduism. Some were forced to sign statements renouncing Christianity, Vatican Radio reported.
“The atmosphere in the state is not very conducive for Christians anymore,” Father Abraham Kannampala, vicar general of Jagdalpur Diocese told Vatican Radio. “We feel threatened as we are a small minority.”
In spite of persecution, a recent census showed the very small Christian minority is growing in several north-eastern states, worrying those who want India to be entirely Hindu.
Extremist groups used the latest census data to agitate for Hindu nationalism, even though the overall population of Christians in the country shifted from 2.34 percent to 2.3 percent. They blame Christians and Muslims for the decline in the number of people who identify with a “traditionally Indian” faith like Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism, World Watch Monitor (WWM) reported.
Another Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, released a statement complaining about the “religious imbalance” of northern regions.
“All this fuss about census data is a precursor to social violence against [non-Indian] religions,” Christian activist John Dayal told WWM. “There is nothing new in this campaign. There is a clear strategy to create a demographic hysteria against Christians and Muslims as outsiders.”
In the 1960s, Christians made up nearly 25 percent of India’s population.
— by Julia A. Seymour