By Zeenat Saberin
New Delhi: There is a sense of unease leading up to Christmas celebrations in India, according to Christian groups.
“There are open letters being written to schools in Uttar Pradesh asking them not to celebrate Christmas. What is going on in this country? This is not about Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Sikhs. It is about our beloved India,” Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told Al Jazeera.
Earlier this month, radical Hindu groups allegedly assaulted a group of carol singers and set their empty car on fire in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Members of the right-wing Bajrang Dal said they had “proof to show how Christian priests were forcibly converting poor Hindus”. The group has direct links with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On the evening of December 14, state police in Madhya Pradesh arrested the group of carol singers, including two Catholic priests, for several hours in the city of Satna after members of the right-wing Hindu group accused them of forcible conversions to Christianity. At least 30 seminarians and two priests from St Ephrem’s Theological College in Satna were arrested, according to the bishops’ conference.
Meanwhile, the Hindu Jagran Manch, a right-wing Hindu group with close ties to the ruling party, warned Christian schools in the state against celebrating Christmas this year, claiming that the holiday was a step towards “forced conversions” and that the gifts exchanged during Christmas “may lure children to convert to Christianity”.
Eighteen years after Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two pre-teen sons were burned to death by violent Hindu groups in one of the worst hate crimes recorded in the country, Christians in India are reliving some hateful moments.
Staines and his sons, 10-year-old Timothy and eight-year-old Philip, were burned to death by a crowd of Hindu fanatics as they slept in their vehicle outside a church in the state of Odisha in January 1999. A mob had prevented the missionary and his sons from trying to escape the flames in their burning car.
Right-wing Hindu groups say they are prepared to battle “foreign influence corrupting Indian society.”
“It is not just about Christmas Day. It is about Hindu culture and what is foreign to us. Be it Christmas Day or Valentine’s Day – all this is not Indian culture. See, by adopting Western festivals, Hindu youth are forgetting their roots and their own culture. We are against this. We will see to it that such Western ideas are stopped,” Avinash Rana, a member of the Hindu Jagran Manch, told Al Jazeera.
His Organisation enjoys the support of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians.
Christian leaders are wary of this “climate of hate”, citing a “rampant state of impunity” fueling these hate groups.
“In many such cases and attacks against Christians, the police [force] has been either an idle bystander or has been complicit in the violence. How can one citizen of India threaten another citizen of India and get away with it? It is for the police and the government to act – when will they act?” activist John Dayal asked.
India’s minority groups, especially Muslims and the Christian community, have been under increasing attack since the BJP came to power in 2014.
Activists say more than 700 cases of attacks on Christians were reported via the United Christian Forum toll-free helpline number (1-800-208-4545) since 2014.
In 2015, half a dozen churches were vandalized as hard line Hindu groups campaigned to convert members of “foreign religions”, such as Islam and Christianity, to Hinduism.
Religious conversion laws are strict in the state of Madhya Pradesh, like many other states in India. Hindu groups working among the tribespeople, railing against conversions and arranging for reconversions to Hinduism, has been subject of controversy.
People must give formal notice to local administrators in order to change their religion.
“This accusation of forced conversions is a criminal conspiracy to paint a picture of Christians as the way they have already painted a terrible picture of the Muslims. This is a conspiracy to try and frame Christians,” Dayal told Al Jazeera.
They are injecting poison in the society; they are spreading rumours like those of ‘forced conversion’.
About a fifth of India’s 1.27 billion people identify as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism. Christians make up 2.3 percent of India’s billion-plus population.
Most Christian groups deny allegations of “forced conversions”. Mascarenhas said the “fear psychosis being created is not good for the country”.
“They are injecting poison in society; they are spreading rumors like those of ‘forced conversion’. In Satna, there are 3,000 Christians since 1977. Eighty percent of them are migrants. Where are the conversions? Why do you go around telling lies that we are converting? If Catholic schools were being used for conversion, there should have been hundreds of millions of Christians in India, because our schools have educated millions,” he said.
Religious conversion by “force, inducement and fraud” is outlawed in Indian states.
“In Satna, instead of arresting those who attacked and manhandled the priests, they have filed cases against the priests,” Mascarenhas said. “This is unheard of. But people in the villages have fear, not only because these mobs and gangs are going around threatening people, but because the police simply seem to be standing by. This is what is worrying, not for Christians alone. This is a worrying sign for the country.”
The Modi government denies allegations of bias against Christians or Muslims. The bishops’ conference leaders met the Indian Minister of Internal Security, Rajnath Singh to discuss the recent threats and incidents of violence.
In a series of inflammatory comments, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent body of the ruling BJP, earlier targeted Mother Teresa, a Christian nun who spent her life caring for the poor in India’s Kolkata and who was declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church last year.
Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, said Mother Teresa sought “to make the person obligated so that they become Christian”.
In 2015, hundreds of Christian protesters clashed with police on the streets of New Delhi to demand government protection amid concerns that minorities were being increasingly targeted by Hindu extremist groups.
But Mascarenhas maintains that Christians in India are a “resilient community”.
“We will continue living our faith. Christians have grown most when they have been persecuted,” he said.