Hindu nationalists recently held an anti-Christian rally in eastern India after local police departments were ordered to monitor churches for conversion activities, with rally speakers calling for violence and vowing to make their province a “conversion-free zone.”
“Let us drag people from the church and stop conversions at any cost,” Amit Sahu, president of the Chhattisgarh Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), reportedly told rally-goers on August 3, later challenging the crowd to make the Bastar District a “conversion-free zone.”
Another BJP leader, Roop Singh Mandavi, was said to have declared, “We will frighten Christians who are involved in conversion work in the region. We will not allow the missionary work to be carried on in Bastar and will protect the Hindu religion by stopping the conversions.”
While the words have been enough to grab headlines in the west for their violent nature, the turnout for the rally produced a sense of relief among local Christian leaders.
“We took a long breath after seeing the poor show in attendance,” one Christian leader from Chhattisgarh told ICC on the condition of anonymity. “It was expected that 10,000 to 12,000 people would turn up for the rally. This was very concerning, but less than 500 people attended.”
“Though the rally was not successful in terms of numbers, the Hindutva activists will be more aggressive,” a Jagdalpur pastor told the ICC, explaining that the nationalists plan to do “reconversion programs” in remote areas, which are difficult to monitor for persecution.
“The state is already in tremendous turmoil and Christians and pastors are targeted for what they believe and practice,” the pastor explained. “This rally will add fuel to the fire. We need prayers and someone to stand with us.”
Hindus make up over 81 percent of India’s massive population of 1.3 billion, while Christians make up just 2.4 percent.
Although India is officially a secular state with protections for religious minorities codified in its constitution, it has been criticized for the presence of minority religious persecution, according to Pew Research.
Open Doors USA’s World Watch List ranks India as the 10th worst country for Christian persecution, while the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USIRF) has labeled the nation one of its “countries of particular concern” in a report to the U.S. State Department.
The USCIRF has taken issue with Indian anti-conversion laws, which supporters say prevent people from being coerced or forced into accepting a new religion and protect women from so-called “love jihad” as the laws do not recognize marriages in which one partner converted for the sole sake of marrying their spouse.
There are currently no nationwide anti-conversion laws; they vary between the respective states where they exist, as India Today explains.
However, leaders from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) party recently called on the national government to apply similar laws across the country, reports The Times of India.
India is a nation where practitioners of all the world’s major faiths, from Muslim to Hindu to Christian to Buddhist, have lived side-by-side for near-millennia to varying degrees of harmony.
India’s governing body is tasked with protecting religious freedom in a climate where the majority of people follow a tradition that is intricately intertwined with the country’s own ethnic, cultural, and historic heritage, and that can be a tricky balance.
Anti-conversion laws, for example, introduce “the possibility of wide-ranging interpretation of allurements, fraudulent means and coercion in religious conversion that can easily be misused against anyone who may do a small act of charity to his fellow human being,” explained another priest. “It means not only the outcome but even the process however innocuous is prosecutable — a ready-made tool in the hands of mischief mongers.”
Can there be true religious freedom in a place where there are laws dictating how you can minister to those of other faiths?
It is difficult to imagine that there can be. While our own First Amendment prevents the U.S. Congress from making laws that infringe on a person’s right to religious freedom, India is clearly enacting laws that guard against the practice of religious freedom for some religions — which is very definitely not the same thing.
This was the slippery slope that our own Founding Fathers meant to avoid, and which we must all pray does not ultimately serve to restrict religious freedom for our Christian brothers and sisters in India.