By Mark Ellis
Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
LOS ANGELES, CA (ANS) — Most Christians understand the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism around the world, but few are aware of a virulent strain of Hindu radicalism targeting believers in India.
â€œThere is a well-rehearsed plan for violence against churches and evangelists,â€ says George Ninan, a South Asia director for Campus Crusade for Christ. Ninan, on staff with Crusade since 1971, prays daily for awakening in the sprawling sub-continent inhabited by one-sixth of the worldâ€™s population.
â€œOne month ago two of our staff members were beaten up while they were talking to students at the university,â€ says Ninan. â€œThey were taken to the police station and the police did the same thing,â€ he says. â€œThese are things that wouldnâ€™t have happened a few years back.â€
In recent years, militant groups have arisen that trumpet a Hindu â€œraceâ€ and culture, urging that Hinduism be recognized as the official state religion. One such far right group, the National Volunteer Service (RSS), is influenced by 1930s-style Nazism. Sadly, such groups are gaining influence in high places.
â€œThese groups has been in existence in different names in the last 60-100 years,â€ Ninan says. â€œIt was people who believed in this ideology who killed Mahatma Gandhi,â€ he says. â€œNow we have a new political party that subscribes to the same views.â€
â€œI may be wrong, but there is a feeling that the ones who are in power would support this,â€ Ninan says, referring to the persecution. â€œThe members of radical groups feel they can do these things and get away with it.â€
In 1997, Father Thomas, a Jesuit priest from Belgium, was killed by Hindu nationalists disguised as police officers. The same year, another priest was severely beaten and paraded naked through the streets by militantsâ€”all within view of the police, according to Freedom House in Washington D.C.
Two years later, an Australian missionary and his two sons were burned to death in their van by Hindu extremists. Over 100 incidents of violence have been documented against Christians since 1998, including the rape of four nuns and one nun shot in the face. Many Christians were injured, killed or left homeless by such attacks.
â€œWhen they attacked a Catholic institution and raped the nuns,â€ Ninan says, â€œalong with the news they said, â€˜The nuns were raped because they were converting people.â€™ Instead of condemning it, they said â€˜maybe thereâ€™s a reason to justify it.â€
â€œEven when the Australian missionary and his two children were burned our home minister said, â€˜Now Iâ€™m certain none of our Hindu activists were involved,â€™â€ Ninan says. â€œBut how does he know,â€ Ninan wonders, â€œeven before preliminary investigations were over?â€
â€œAll these things lead us to a state where we canâ€™t believe in the system,â€ Ninan says. â€œWe canâ€™t trust them, but we canâ€™t prove anything against them,â€ he adds.
In addition to religious persecution, Indian society is beset by other deeply rooted social problems. The New York Times reports that one-third of the elected officials in Indiaâ€™s most populous state have criminal backgrounds. Indiaâ€™s judicial system has a logjam of thirty million unheard cases, and the system is considered off-limits to the poor.
The army and police are responsible for torture and arbitrary disappearances, particularly against low-caste members of society. Female convicts are often raped while in custody, according to Freedom House.
Every year, disputes over the outlawed dowry practice cause several thousand women to be burned to death, driven to suicide or killed, while authorities take little action. Some of Indiaâ€™s major cities have thousands of street children, and millions of under-age workers exist in forced servitude in industrial and agricultural settings, Freedom House reports.
Such entrenched social problems may lead some to lash out at any kind of scapegoatâ€”including Christians. â€œThere is a hatred and a division being created that goes really deep,â€ says Ninan. â€œFirst they go after the people who are involved in evangelism and discipleship,â€ he says. â€œThey say, â€˜Youâ€™re going against our culture; you are destroying our traditions,â€™â€ he adds. â€œAnd they get people on their side.â€
â€œIf practicing faith means going to church or prayer meetings and wearing a cross, I can do that and nobody objects to that,â€ Ninan says. â€œBut if you believe in witnessing for your faith and seeing people coming to Christ, there is always a danger that somebody will come after you.â€
Many Christians had their hopes raised for revival by an unprecedented rally of about one million of Indiaâ€™s â€œuntouchables,â€ known as Dalits, in November 2001. At the rally, the Dalits announced they were leaving Hinduism en masse for another religion. Dalit leaders agreed to consider the case for Jesus Christ, as well as other major religions.
The word Dalit means â€œoppressedâ€ or â€œbroken to pieces,â€ and under Hindu rules, these poorest of the poor are not even allowed to enter all Hindu temples. It is considered socially unacceptable to allow a Dalit to even attend a religious festival.
Some thought if the Dalits responded to Christianity, it could be one of the greatest revivals of all time. Some estimate there are 200 million to 250 million Dalits trapped in Indiaâ€™s caste systemâ€”their fates considered to be determined at birth.
When Dalit leaders ultimately embraced Buddhism, many Christians were deeply disappointed. â€œOnly very few Dalits heard about this movement,â€ according to Ninan. â€œThe propaganda was that 10 million would show up in Dehli for the rally and that 350 million would become Christians that day, but that didnâ€™t happen because of their fears of losing certain rights if they converted to Christianity.â€
Under Indiaâ€™s legal system, if the Dalits converted to Christianity, they would lose their eligibility for affirmative action programs. But if they converted to Buddhism, considered to be an offshoot of Hinduism, they would still maintain their benefits.
Ninan believes false expectations were raised by the rally and mass conversion last year. â€œIt was a social movement,â€ he says. â€œIt was not a spiritual movement at all. It was people getting out of Hinduism for their convenienceâ€”this is not the type of Christian we want at all.â€ Further, one so-called Dalit leader quoted in the press did not carry the influence attributed to him, according to Ninan.
â€œEvery day there are Dalits who come to Christ and join the church,â€ he notes. â€œIf they join the church they lose their privilegesâ€”and everybody knows that.â€
Ninan oversees 1250 teams showing the Jesus Film in different parts of India, with most working in partnership with local churches. â€œIn the last two years 1200 churches have been established by our partners,â€ he says.
While Ninan hasnâ€™t seen the revival he prays for daily, he remains hopeful about India, despite its unusual obstacles to the Christian faith. â€œMost of the ministries are seeing results,â€ he says. â€œWe might not make a lot of noise, but the church is growing, and Iâ€™m excited about that.â€