Hindu extremists in southern India issued harsh threats to Christians distributing Bibles before snatching their car keys, taking Bibles out of their vehicle and setting the Scripture on fire, sources said.
Christians associated with Gideons International, all senior citizens, told Morning Star News that their advanced age did not temper the vitriol they received in Singotam village, Nagar Kurnool District, in Telangana state on Jan. 21.
“From now on, if any of you distribute Bibles, we will attack you brutally [till your genitalia are damaged],” one of the Hindus warned the Christians, according to a video the extremists took of the attack. “How dare you promote Christianity?”
The video shows the group harassing Christians after one of the group snuck into the car, took the keys and tossed the Bibles out, which the group then began kicking.
“You are useless people, and all your activities are useless,” the video shows one saying. “You will give a Bible to whoever you want? How dare you …You shameless idiots. Get the hell out of here.”
One of the assailants then poured fuel as his colleagues instructed him to pour it on the copies; he then lit a matchstick and set the Bibles on fire.
The hostilities come after “one of the most traumatic” years of persecution of Christians, according to a report released last week by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).
The Christians had obtained permission to distribute the Bibles at government-aided school in Singotam village from the headmaster. They had set out from Nagarkurnool at 11 a.m. and reached Singotam 90 minutes later, waiting another half hour for four other Christian associates, the group’s Richard Nixon told Morning Star News.
“Eight of us were travelling in two different cars,” he said. “Before distributing the Bibles, we prayed together, and we had first asked the school administration that we will place the Bibles there, that the students may take them, but we were told to distribute them by ourselves. It was such a joy! The children came to us few at a time with their friends and received the Bibles happily.”
They distributed nearly 170 Bibles, Nixon said. Five cartons remained with 80 copies of the New Testament in each, and they proceeded towards the town distributing the Bibles to shops and passers-by.
“There was a Lakshmi Narsimha Swamy temple in that area called Kollapur, and a man came out from the temple and asked us if we can give him some copies of New Testament, and we gave some 20 copies to him,” Nixon said. “Each of us was carrying handful of Bibles and were walking on the road adjacent to the temple.”
Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess for wealth, and Narsimha is the Hindu lion god. They are regarded as husband and wife in Hindu mythology.
A group of at least 10 Hindu extremists approached and ordered them to stop distributing the Bibles, Nixon said.
“We didn’t want to argue with them and just kept calm,” he said. “But they started badgering us with questions: ‘Who sent you here? Why are you distributing Bibles?’ They soon slipped into filthy language. We told them that we will move on from here, and requested let there be no fight.”
The Christians had distributed Bibles in the area for 30 years without any opposition, said another member of the group, K.J. Anandham, a retired police sub-inspector.
“The Hindus harassed us and even threatened to beat my wife,” he said. “We are all retired employees and senior citizens; they did not have courtesy for age. Their language was uncivilized and brutal.”
The extremists told them to leave, and they resumed their journey, stopping the car after about 800 meters to wait for their colleagues in the other car.
“We found the same man who picked a fight with us in the town following us with 10 more,” Nixon said. “They started abusing us in extreme vulgar language. One of them sneaked into the car and picked up the copies of Bibles and threw them out. They started kicking the Bibles.”
While their driver was about to start the car, another extremist jumped in and pulled the keys from him, he said
“They started tearing the Bibles savagely. They got the cartons we had not even opened yet from the boot of the car, threw them down and started kicking and stamping the copies. We tried to stop them, saying, ‘We will not distribute them here, but please don’t tear the Bibles. It’s the Holy Word of God,’ but they paid no heed. They also started videotaping.”
The extremists then set the Bibles ablaze. Area resident A. Navanitham saw the video and informed Kollapur police. Circle Inspector of Police Saida Babu told Morning Star News that officers registered a case, First Information Report No. 12/2018, based on Navanitham’s complaint and the video, and took the assailants into custody.
A counter-charge, however, has been filed against the Christians, Sub-Inspector of Police G.V. Satyanarayana told Morning Star News.
“This case will not be produced before the court as yet,” he said. “We are waiting for the orders of the District Collector.”
District Collector E. Sridhar was unavailable for comment.
A legal expert who requested anonymity said police have taken the tactic of registering an FIR against “unknown” assailants.
“There is no name – that simply means they have not charged anyone, and no assailants were produced before the court,” the legal expert said. “Had the police been serious, they would have made arrests, and the accused according to legal procedure should have been produced before the court of law since Section 295-A is a non-bailable offense.”
Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings,” punishable by a fine, prison terms or both.
There is no chance of intervention by the District Collector, since it is police who levy charges depending on the evidence, the source noted.
Asked what the charges had been filed against the Christians, Police Inspector G.V. Satyanarayana said, “We are yet to decide that, but a case has already been registered under section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code.”
Gideons associate Anandham said that three days after the incident, he and his wife were summoned to the police station.
“Because of the complaint given by Navanitham, the police joined hands with Hindu extremists and are after us,” he said.
He and his wife, both diabetics, were held at the police station all the day, he said.
“We were exhausted, without food and water,” he said. “On the day of attack, we discussed the matter and decided to pray and forgive the assailants, and to not file any case against them. But Navnitham has shown interest, and his motives are still not known.”
Asked to comment, Navnitham told Morning Star News only, “The police have already arrested the assailants, the matter is over.”
Navneet Chhabra, executive director of Gideons International in India, told Morning Star News that there have been several instances of people telling workers to stop distributing Bibles, though the workers are not assigned to religious conversion.
“The book has got Proverbs, which are written by Solomon, and it speaks about wisdom,” he said. “It has got several things, and we do not know in which state the people are when they receive a copy. We only believe that when they read it they will receive some peace in their heart.”
Gideons workers politely stop distributing when people decline, he said.
“There have been testimonies where people who have themselves burned the Bibles have invited Christ into their lives,” he added. “There are instances where people have picked up torn papers of Bible from garbage, and their lives were transformed.”
The organization has received letters from hospitals and jails from people who received the Bibles and whose lives the Lord has touched, Chhabra said.
“Whoever has done this act of burning the Bibles, we will pray for them that the Lord wipe away the hatred from their hearts,” he said. “We belong to the same country and share as much patriotism as they do, then why this animosity? We don’t retaliate, we don’t hold any animosity, and we forgive them. We love them.”
Nixon added: “We will continue sharing the love of Lord Jesus Christ.”
The incident comes amid a dramatic rise in attacks on Christians, according to a report released last week by the EFI. Last year EFI recorded 351 cases of hate and targeted violence against Christians, compared with 230 in 2016.
“There has been an increase in the number of incidents since 2014 onwards,” the Rev. Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the EFI, told Morning Star News. “While 2014 saw 147 incidents against Christians, in 2015 we documented 177 such incidents and over 230 incidents in 2016. This year we have seen a significant increase in the incidents.”
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
The report, compiled by the EFI’s Religious Liberty Commission, notes, “The year 2017 has been one of the most traumatic for the Christian community in India since the mass targeted violence of the Kandhamal pogrom in 2007 and 2008.”
States reporting most of the incidents were Tamil Nadu with 52, Uttar Pradesh with 50, Chhattisgarh with 43, Maharashtra with 38, Madhya Pradesh with 36, Bihar with 23 and Jharkhand with 17. With the exception of Tamil Nadu, the Bhartiya Janata Party – a Hindu nationalist party to which Prime Minister Modi belongs – rules, though it is part of a coalition in Bihar.
Most of the cases documented consisted of physical violence and arrests at 110, followed by 70 instances of threat and harassment, 64 cases of disruption of church and worship services and 49 arrests on false charges. The report documents four incidents cases in which Christians lost their lives because of their faith.
There were two instances where gender violence was used as a tool of persecution.
“The incidents of disruption of church services and even private prayer meetings held in homes have increased since the last three years at least,” Lal said. “What is more surprising is that in states like Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, the law machinery and various provisions are being used to disrupt worship services, and threats are being issued by state and non-state actors to pastors and evangelists, leading to a stopping of worship services or Christian activity in many areas.”
The report notes that while incidents against Christians were evenly spread across the months of the year, “the prayerful period of Lent and Christmas, which involves larger participation of people,” also saw a higher targeting of Christians. The report documented 54 incidents in April and 40 in December.
The report highlighted this trend in an incident in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, in December, when a mob of Hindu extremists beat members of a group singing Christmas carols and set their vehicle on fire.
“One of those arrested was a professor at a Catholic theological college,” the report notes. “The priest-professor and others had to spend several days in jail before they were let out on bail.”
Christian children were also targeted in at least three separate incidents, all in Madhya Pradesh, when they were taken into custody and detained along with the adults escorting them to Christian Bible camps, according to the report.
“In what seems to be a misuse of the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Act in Madhya Pradesh, at least three incidents (during the months of May, June and October) were reported from Madhya Pradesh where Christian children travelling for church related functions and their leaders were taken into custody on alleged charges of kidnapping and conversion,” the report states. “In one instance, the group was attacked by Hindu Dharm Jagran Manch activists, and it was more than a week before the Madhya Pradesh High Court handed over the children to their parents.
“A habeas corpus petition had been filed before the Indore bench by the parents who contended that the children were going to Mumbai to attend a Bible-reading session with their consent but were illegally detained and kept at a secret location.”
The report acknowledged that it is aware of persecution and pressure directed at other religious minorities, as well as caste discrimination against Dalits and violence against women in general.
The EFI is “deeply concerned at the many men, Muslims and Dalits, who have been lynched in the guise of punishing them for trafficking in cattle,” the report states, adding that it recognizes that “issues of cow, caste and attempts to force Hindu religious codes on schools also impact the Christian community.”
Official figures from the government as put forth in the Parliament of India indicate that “communal violence” has increased by 28 percent in three years.
“We will take the findings of this report to the Union government and urge them to intervene to restore the confidence of the Christian community,” Lal said. “The various state governments and the Union government, must move beyond mere lip service and uphold fundamental rights, especially the right to freedom of religion or belief, through concrete action and enforcement of law, without partiality.”
India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution, up from 15th the previous year, and ahead of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Egypt.