By Santosh Digal, Worthy News Asia Correspondent
NEW DELHI, INDIA (Worthy News)-- A dozen church leaders remained behind bars Tuesday, April 13, over a week after security forces detained them in India's southern state of Karnataka on charges of "forceful conversion" of Hindus, a major evangelical group said.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), which represents evangelical Christians and churches, said the 12 pastors were detained in the district of Kodagu April 6 after "Hindu extremists filed a police complaint against the Christians about forceful conversion."
The Hindu militants and several police officers reportedly barged into the home of a Christian where the pastors were having a prayer meeting. "The extremists accused the pastors of forceful conversion and took them to the police station for questioning," EFI said.
EFI said the pastors remained detained under several sections of the Indian Penal Code "for uttering words intend to hurt the religious feelings of others." They were also held on charges that included "defiling a place of worship" and an intention to "breach of peace", the group said.
The detained pastors were identified as Vijay, Lakhama, Philomina Raj, John K.O, Peter, Satish, Macho, Baby, Wilson Mathew, Abraham, Mathew K.J, Freddy, and Johny K.A. Officials were not immediately available for comment.
Rights activists said the detention is taking a toll on the Christians and their families. Most of the prisoners are heads of families [and pastor] John K.O is suffering from heart disease," said International Christian Concern (ICC),a U.S. based Christian rights group investigating the case.
"The Christians have sought release on bail, but heir requests have been refused by authorities four times," ICC said. The state of Karnataka is ruled by the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party that rights activists claim is "infamous for persecuting" Christians.
Last year, the highest number of attacks against Indian Christians reportedly took place in Karnataka.
"Ever since the BJP took over, there have been frequent violent attacks against Christians in Karnataka. The Christians in Karnataka are worried about what will happen to them if such attacks continue," ICC quoted an Indian Christian leader as saying, apparently speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of more violence.
Christian leaders said they have urged the international community to pressure authorities to protect Christians and release the pastors. "We condemn the Indian police for arresting the Christians while they were holding a prayer meeting," said ICC’s Regional Manager for South Asia, Jonathan Racho. "We urge Indian officials to immediately release the Christians
and guarantee their rights to exercise their religion freely."
News of the arrest came as on the same day authorities in the central state of Chhattisgarh released an evangelical pastor and two Christians who were held for "forceful conversion" in the city of Durg, EFI said.
Pastor Premlal Chhatriys and two Christians, identified as Umabai and Sulanbai, from the Evangelical Christian Church of India were briefly detained and released on bail April 6.
"The arrest took place when the extremists encouraged a Hindu woman...who attended the church twice last year on July seeking healing for her sick daughter to file a complaint against the Christians of forceful conversion," after the daughter died in February, EFI said.
The woman, identified as Agasia Bai, could not be reached for comment.
There have also been attacks reported against Christians. "The same church on December 13, 2009 was attacked by Hindu hardliners when they massed up at the Church’s main gate with Hindu idols and water, forcing the Christians to bow before the Hindu gods while trying to sprinkle Hindu holy water on them," to convert them into Hinduism, EFI said.
The Christians did not oblige, the group said, adding that church members Ram Avatar and one identified only as Arjun were detained in the police station "for about four hours" before being released without charges.
Elsewhere in the state Hindu militants also attacked a church in the city of Bilaspur this Easter for allegedly forcefully converting Hindus. "Hindu extremist allegedly from the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, stopped the Easter Sunday worship of Church of North India (CNI) on April 4 and accused pastor Bhaktu Lakda and church members
of forceful conversion," EFI said in a statement.
Christians said militants "tore gospel pictures, seized Bibles and other gospel literatures" and "beat up" church members. Police arrived at the scene, but there were no reports of arrests.
A similar incident reportedly took place in the same city March 27 when 10 militants of the hard-line Hindu group Bajrang Dal said church members of the Assembly of God church converted people against their will.
They, "verbally abused the Christians for their faith and accused them of forceful conversion and stopped the meeting," EFI said
Christian missionaries have also been the targets of attacks, according to investigators. In one incident in the eastern state of West Bengal Hindu militants "attacked Christians and ostracized" on March 13, EFI said.
"The Hindu extremists beat up Gospel for Asia [group] missionary Gangi Ram and 13 new
followers of Jesus Christ for their faith."
"The extremists beat up the Christians whenever they show their faces in public, destroyed their homes, denied them access to the Well and threatened them more harm if the Christians continue to worship in the village," EFI said, without naming the location, apparently amid security concerns.
Although Christians comprise less than three percent of India's predominantly Hindu population of over one billion people, Hindu groups have expressed concerns about the spread of Christianity, including among impoverished Dalits, deemed the "lowest caste" in the country's ancient system of Hinduism.