Federal policy in India generally protects religious freedom. Indian law recognizes five minority status religious groups, to which it promises special protection in order to maintain India’s status as a diverse secular republic. Nevertheless, at the state level Christians and other minorities face both legal and societal discrimination. In particular, violent attacks on Christians from Hindu nationalists and the abuse of anti-conversion laws pose serious threats to the ability of Christians in India to actively exercise and share their faith.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in India
India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, Indonesia
Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University
Christians constitute a minority religious community in India. The CIA and Department of State both estimate the Christian population at 2.3 percent of India’s total population, or roughly 25 million people, though many believe such figures underestimate the Indian Christian population. Christians are scattered throughout the country, but are more concentrated in the northeastern and southern states. In at least three small northeastern states, and several districts in the south, Christians constitute a local majority. The largest single denomination in India is the RCC, though Catholics are outnumbered by the cumulative total of a variety of Protestant and Orthodox denominations, among which ecumenical Protestant denominations like the Church of North India and Church of South India, and the Syrian Rite churches, are especially prominent. Pentecostal forms of Christianity are also prevalent and growing rapidly.
History of the Indian Christian Community
Many Indian Christians believe that Christianity arrived in India as early as the first century with the Apostle Thomas, and Syriac Christianity certainly had a long-established presence in India prior to the arrival of Europeans in the country. However, the contemporary importance of Catholic and Protestant communities dates largely to missionary activity after the establishment of European presence in India. In particular, the Jesuits and other Catholic missionary orders gained access to the Indian interior with the arrival and establishment of the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (although others preceded them), most notably via the missionary presence of Francis Xavier. Protestant missionaries built a presence in India, particularly during the later period of British rule. Contemporary missionary work has continued in India; however, it has been set against rising societal intolerance toward conversion away from Hinduism.
Federal policy in India generally protects religious freedom. Indian law recognizes five minority status religious groups, to which it promises special protection in order to maintain India’s status as a diverse secular republic. Nevertheless, at the state level Christians and other minorities face both legal and societal discrimination. In particular, violent attacks on Christians from Hindu nationalists and the abuse of anti-conversion laws pose serious threats to the ability of Christians in India to actively exercise and share their faith. Anti-conversion laws in principle do not purport to oppose religious freedom; in fact, they claim to guarantee it. These and other “religious freedom” laws usually claim to prevent missionary and proselytizing activity from taking advantage of the poor and socially vulnerable to produce coerced conversions. In practice, however, these laws exist in a climate of antagonism towards conversion away from Hinduism and a long history of tensions between Hindu nationalists and religious minorities, in particular Sikhs and Muslims, but also Christians. In recent years this tension has resulted in violent assaults against Christians and in particular those identified as Christian pastors and evangelists. This has included the killing of Christian leaders and lay people, especially in response to the rumored or real conversion of low-caste Hindus to Christianity. Often attackers have not faced official opprobrium, and civil society groups complained that authorities often declined to investigate vandalism of churches, intimidation, and other assaults against Christian groups. This is at least partially tied to a crippling backlog of cases in India’s judiciary, which can require decades to receive review. Jehovah’s Witnesses remained banned from receiving foreign funding. In general then, while the Indian Christian community does not operate in a particularly oppressive legal context, it faces serious societal discrimination often with the tacit cooperation of local authorities, especially as a result of Hindu nationalism.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in India and Sri Lanka
Chad Bauman, Ph.D. (Butler University)
Christians in India and Sri Lanka face similar social, legal, and political pressures that arise, in the two neighboring democracies, from similar sources. Yet while the results of recent elections have brought hope to Christians in Sri Lanka, to Christians in India they have instead brought fear, frustration, and anxiety.
The constitutions in both countries provide moderate protections of religious freedom, but in both locations, majoritarian religious nationalists—Hindu in India; Buddhist in Sri Lanka—demand that their religion be given special consideration while framing “foreign” religions like Islam and Christianity (the latter particularly despised for its association with colonization and globalization) as a threat to the sovereignty and identity of the nation. Sri Lanka’s constitution already reserves a special place for Buddhism, though some Buddhist nationalists would like to see that privilege strengthened and more widely enacted/imposed, and the state (particularly the army) regularly participates in the blatant Buddhisization of non-Buddhist space. Meanwhile, India’s Hindu nationalists fight to impose certain of their religious norms (e.g., prohibitions against cow slaughter and the consumption of beef) on all Indians through legislation and mob violence.
Both countries have considered establishing national laws circumscribing religious conversion (that are used primarily to prevent conversion away from the majority religion), and several states in India have passed them. Christians in both countries have been falsely charged and imprisoned, prevented from engaging in worship and/or building churches through the imposition of legal or bureaucratic hurdles, physically harassed, beaten, injured, and killed, in hundreds of documented incidents occurring with particular frequency since the end of the twentieth century.
Despite these similarities, the political paths of these two countries now diverge in dramatic ways. Indian elections in 2014 handed a decisive and stunning victory to the nationalist leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, and to its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a man whose support for religious minorities and religious freedom has been weak, to say the least, and whose regime is perceived by Christians to have permitted and even encouraged a pronounced rise in the frequency of incidents of anti-Christian harassment and violence. Contrariwise, Sri Lankan elections in January, 2015, resulted in the surprise defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksha, who had subsisted on the strength of Singhalese Buddhist nationalism, which he himself helped produce, it is widely believed, by engineering and accommodating anti-minority violence, and whose successor, Maithripala Sirisena, is widely perceived as a more temperate, inclusive leader, under whose reign the frequency of attacks on Christians has fallen dramatically.
Despite differing current political climates in the two countries, Christians in India and Sri Lanka are attempting to address their situation in a similar variety of ways. Christians in both countries have reduced the visibility and assertiveness of their evangelistic endeavors, and many have shifted their energies towards social service projects. To overcome legal and bureaucratic hurdles preventing their assembly and/or the construction of worship spaces, congregations in both locations have increasingly met in homes, or built churches surreptitiously, or secured permission for construction by designating the structures “service centers,” “community halls,” and the like. In both India and Sri Lanka, Christians have also increased their engagement with people of other faiths, investing more energetically in interfaith dialogue, celebrating non-Christian holidays, adapting elements of other religions into Christian belief and practice, and participating in collaborative, interfaith service and civil space projects with the aim of undermining the allegation that Christian charity is merely a pretext for conversion. Indian and Sri Lankan Christians have also increased their engagement with the political process, ever more fiercely promoting secular values and defending religious freedom, and advocating both rhetorically and legally for those negatively affected by anti-Christian currents. While skeptics abound, even among Christians, many of these efforts can boast of having improved interfaith relations and the lives of Christians in real and concrete (if often quite local and limited) ways.