Christian persecution in India: Historical and religious context
With a population of 1.1 billion people, India is the largest democracy in the world. The history of Christianity in India stretches back almost 2,000 years and today it sends out more cross-cultural missionaries than any other nation in the world; yet only 2.3 per cent of its population (approximately 25.3 million people) are Christian.
India's population is primarily Hindu (80.5%), but its 13.4% Muslim population is still the second largest on earth. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have remained high since the partition, but Christians and other religious minorities are also facing mounting pressure as a result of the Hindutva ideology pursued by right-wing Hindu nationalist groups.
Although the constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion, eight states have tried to enact and legislate anti-conversion laws preventing primarily Dalits and tribals from becoming Christians, which radicals have used as their justification for violence. At present five states have implemented the so-called 'Freedom of Religion Acts', namely Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Orissa.
Orissa was the first state following independence to enact an anti-conversion law in 1967.
Situation in Orissa
Orissa in particular has long had a history of violence against Christians. The now-deceased Laxmanananda Saraswati started a Hindu religious centre in Orissa in 1969 dedicated to countering the work of Christian missionaries and converting animist tribals to Hinduism.
On 23 August 2008 Saraswati was shot dead by Maoists, according to Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda as well as Orissa state police. Nevertheless, Hindu extremists used the incident to unleash an unprecedented wave of attacks against Christians that left an estimated 120 people dead, and many more injured. More than 54,000 people were displaced, and 4,500 houses, 315 villages and 252 churches destroyed. Although this latest wave of anti-Christian attacks started in Orissa, it quickly spread to at least seven other states. The EU has described it as a 'massacre' of Christians. The Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, called it a 'National Shame'.
A year later, an estimated 4,000 people still remain in refugee camps. Dr John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council, said he was distressed that, for the vast majority of the refugees who are from the Kandhamal district, "there was no assurance forthcoming as to when these internally displaced persons, refugees in their homeland, can return home without being forced at gunpoint by the Bajrang Dal to become Hindus". *
Dr Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, says that Hindu extremist groups have been 'reconverting' Christians by force. "We have collected evidence and given it to the authorities," he says. "However, the police and other state government authorities are not doing anything."
Open Doors partners have provided medical assistance, bedding, clothing and food to thousands of people displaced by the violence, as well as counselling and encouragement for many of the victims.
*Compass Direct News