Christian persecution increased in India: Shibu Thomas
In December 2019, the UK-US based monitoring group Open Doors that publishes an annual World Watch List of 50 countries, ranked India 10th in the world where it is most dangerous to live as a Christian.
The report states that political rhetoric and ambiguous interpretations of the Freedom of Religion Acts (or “anti-conversion” laws) are responsible for the high rate of Christian persecution in India. It is mentioned that the persecution of Christians has worsened steadily from 2014 onwards.
These are also the times when more and more incidents of persecution of Christians are coming to the foreground of hate crimes in India. However, somehow these issues are not getting the required attention in the media, among the wider secular section as well as among the Christians themselves.
In order to fill this gap Persecution Relief has been consistently documenting cases of hate crimes on the Christians in India, trying to build more awareness on the issue persecution of the Christians and to generate support for the survivors and the necessary advocacy on this issue.
Persecution Relief is an interdenominational organization covering all denominations of the church and tries to build relations with likeminded individuals and organizations to find effective solutions for the increasing hate crimes on the Christians. It has a base of thousands of individuals all over and many volunteers all over India.
Its founder, Shibu Thomas has been a moving force to bring out many cases of victims and survivors of persecution of Christians in India. This interview Thomas brings out some crucial information which needs wider discussion to end hate crimes.
K P Sasi: Your efforts through the network of Persecution Relief have been extremely significant and deserve much wider and stronger support. Could you please tell us how you started this organization, what were the contexts and what were the motivations to set up Persecution Relief?
Shibu Thomas: I did not start the organization by myself, it was a divine call I received from the Lord. As a businessman, I was never interested and had no idea about Christian persecution in India. I was completely unaware. But inside my heart I had a deep inclination to help my persecuted brothers and sisters and started the journey on my own. The journey was full of obstacles, but the grace of God sustained me.
Today I am overjoyed and thankful to God that he found me worthy of this task and entrusted me with it. All the obstacles I face today are nothing compared to the pain that the persecuted Christians in India, endure and this gives me the strength to carry on.
In a nutshell, how do you explain the overall aims, objectives and mission of your organization?
Our mission is to provide comprehensive support to the persecuted church in India by linking it to the free church of the world. Our goal has been to ensure freedom to worship Jesus Christ in India. Our motto ‘Serving Persecuted-Loving Persecutors’
What according to you are the main reason for the persecution of religious minorities in India?
After the BJP government took charge, the so-called Hindu organizations believed that they acquired a license to persecute the minorities. Many new organizations have sprouted up since then and every state today has independent organizations which are against religious minorities. Hate crimes are mostly executed with the support of local politicians.
In some states, police and local administration works as an extended arm for these groups. Most of these activities go unpunished and that gives these groups more freedom to attack with impunity. Lynching has become such a normal thing today that nobody is prosecuted for it. Most of these organizations are run by youth and they have a strong network in different places to attack minorities. Hate speeches advocating Hindu nationalism, made by politicians, people in power and religious heads, corrupt the minds of youngsters and that play a major role in dividing India in the name of religion. Our Prime Minister must put a stop to these hate speeches. In his own words, “The Constitution of India is my religion,” these words must become a reality in India.
The Hindutva forces have always attacked the Christians for undertaking religious conversion. They seem to cultivate a fear among the members of majoritarian faith that the number of Christians are on the rise. Such campaigns based on politics of hate were undertaken before the major incidents of persecution.
For example, before the Kandhamal genocide such a campaign against the Christians was aggressively undertaken. Interestingly, during the period before Kandhamal, the ratio of population of Christians in India had really gone down, instead of going up. Still, these campaigns on religious conversion have made an impact to instigate hate against the Christians. In this context, how do you see the issue of conversion and the Christian communities in general?
The Indian Constitution guarantees right to Freedom of Religion which is a fundamental right guaranteed by Articles 25-28. This fundamental right provides members of every faith in this secular India, the right to practice, preach and promote their religion peacefully. According to the Indian Constitution, every citizen has the freedom to change their religion or belief. As per these principles, the Constitution guarantees every citizen the liberty to choose, follow, practice and propagate the religion of their choice. Therefore, the Constitution is not against conversion as such, so long as it is executed through peaceful means and not forcefully.
However, this right under the Constitution is getting violated in India in the case of religious minorities, through intimidation and persecution of minorities by the Hindutva forces. It is in this context that the efforts of organizations like ours become important in providing the necessary dignity of faith, relief mechanisms for the victims and the advocacy when required.
What is the overall reach of Persecution Relief?
Persecution cases are usually reported on our dedicated toll-free number: 1800-1234-461 for the persecuted Christians. We have coordinators across 28 states and 9 union territories. We have partnerships with over 25,000 congregations in India. Our social media network reaches millions throughout the world. We connect with our volunteers through 120 WhatsApp groups. The intense, dedicated and genuine work of Persecution Relief has drawn minorities to rely on and trust us with great expectation, hence our reach has been increasing over a period of time.
How many cases of persecution have you documented so far? How many cases do you normally receive in a year? Recently, how many cases have you received? Is there any specific difference in the nature of persecution cases during this Covid-19 period?
We have documented cases of persecution of Christians in every state and every union territory in India. Not too many people know that the persecution of Christians is such a widespread issue in India. Both the wider secular sections as well as the Christians should be aware of this reality, on how widespread this issue really is.
We have documented 1987 cases from January 2016 to April 2020. In 2016, we documented 330 cases, 2017-440, 2018-477 and in 2019-527. From January 2020 to April 2020 we have recorded 213 cases.
During the Covid-19 lockdown period we recorded more than 35 incidents and have found a different trend in these cases. In the villages especially, where the Christian population is scarce, they have been forced into ‘Ghar Wapsi.’ If they refuse, they are beaten up, even women are not spared, their homes are vandalized. They are ultimately boycotted and, in many cases, excommunicated. Even the village council favors the religious fanatics. Of the many incidents we came across, one such incident came to light in Jharkhand, where a penalty of 5001 rupees was imposed on any one who attempts to communicate with the Christians living in that village.
To what extent can you cater to all these cases that you receive? How do you prioritize them in your work?
Even though Christian persecution is rapidly increasing and widely spreading across the country, we are still able to cater to these cases because we have a team of dedicated volunteers and our organization is well connected and has a great network in place. Cases involving women and children and medical emergencies are always given top priority. We are continually supporting the widows and families of Christian Martyrs as they are a very vulnerable group in India. Besides that, we also provide immediate support to those who are beaten and forced out of their homes. We also speak to officials when Christians are taken into custody due to false accusations. When Christians are arrested and imprisoned under false charges, we provide the necessary assistance to bail them out.
Being a secular state, what role do you conceive from the wider secular community in protecting the rights of the religious minorities in India.
The wider secular community must be mindful of the basic constitutional rights of every Indian citizen with regards to religious minorities. Propagation and practice of one’s religion must not be perceived as forced conversions or a threat to another religion. Hate speeches made to incite communal hatred must be discerned before they are believed as such discord is capable of ripping the beautiful fabric of a peaceful nation apart. The role of the Christian minority in the building and upliftment of this great nation must not be forgotten or ignored.
How do you evaluate the overall performance of the churches and their institutions in dealing with the increasing persecution of the Christians in India? What more can be done by these organizations to protect the rights of the persecuted Christians in India. In short, how do you evaluate the work on justice in this regard by the church in particular?
Hating persecutors is an obvious result of Christian persecution; however, Jesus Christ has urged us to forgive those who persecute us. Likewise, Persecution Relief continually encourages Christians to forgive the persecutors. During the initial days the Church was unaware of the increasing persecution in India. However we have been successful in bringing forth the intensity of this reality.
Persecution has definitely broken the denominational barriers and an initiation of unity has taken place among Christians. Churches and institutions must readily reach out and support persecuted Christians by informing them about their basic rights and advocating for them. The church is still holding back from fully opening up to stand with the persecuted. Many denominations are still not in favor of supporting the Protestant and charismatic groups with regards to Christian persecution. As the Church is the body of Christ, if one part is hurt the whole body is also hurt. Hence Christians must unite no matter what you believe.
What are your recent achievements? On the one hand, there is an increasing attack on the Christians on the basis of their faith in every state and on the other hand, organizations like Persecution Relief are struggling to make the issues heard by the communities at large. How do you intend to make a dent in such a context?
Indian Christians amount to 2.3 percent of India’s total population. However, they have never faced a situation as hostile as the current one since Independence.
From January 2016 to March 2020, as many as 1,961 cases of hate crimes against Christians have been recorded across India. In the 1st Quarter of 2020, we recorded 187 cases. Between 1st Quarter of 2016 to 1st Quarter of 2020, there has been a rise of 128.04 percent of hate crimes against Christians all across the country.
We recorded 71 incidents related to threats,i and harassment against Christians, 49 incidents of physical attack, 49 incidents of restriction on religious assembly. Even In the midst of coronavirus challenges and situation, the attacks on Christians have not stopped. The state of Uttar Pradesh continues to be on top with 47 cases followed by Tamil Nadu 20 and Karnataka with 16 cases.
We at Persecution Relief are an organization that creates a global awareness about Christian Persecution in India by reporting authentic information and advocating on behalf of the persecuted Christians by providing them with comprehensive support. Our reports are trusted and utilized by various governments and organisations across the globe. Our reports are logical and all-inclusive about the atrocities faced by the Christians in India.
The Persecution Relief Toll Free Number 1800-1234-461 started in 2017 to provide comprehensive support to the persecuted. Between 2017 and 2020 we have received an alarming amount of around 3,000 calls from many helpless Christians desperately seeking for help and relief. I have recently written an Open Letter to The Prime Minister of India, highlighting the plight of the Persecuted Christians in India.
For those who wish to know more about Persecution Relief, kindly go through www.persecutionrelief.org
(K.P. Sasi is a film maker, cartoonist, writer and activist. This first appeared in countercurrents.org on May 19, 2020)