India and Sri Lanka
In both India and Sri Lanka, small Christian minorities face persecution from surrounding religious majorities whose most ardent spokespeople claim that the country is their homeland and that Christians are a foreign presence.
India’s Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained command of the central government in 2014, while Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nationalist president, Mahinda Rajapaksha, was defeated in January 2015. Christians in both countries face legal repression at the hands of the government and violence at the hands of non-state actors.
In India, where Christians are officially estimated to account for 2.3 percent of the population, the Supreme Court has upheld anti-conversion laws that restrain Christians in some six states. Christians also suffer several hundred incidents per year of intimidation, vandalism, and physical violence at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups. The best known examples are the riots in Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2007 and 2008, in which at least fifty Christians were killed, many more suffered assaults, and an estimated 30,000 were forced into refugee camps.
The government of Sri Lanka, meanwhile, accuses Christians, who form 8 percent of the population, of promoting conversions. The government uses registration regulations to deny Christian communities the right to build churches, exposes them to vandalism and other violence, and harasses their members. Christian communities also experience destruction of their church property, desecration of religious objects, and attacks on their members. An estimated 103 such incidents took place in 2013 and another 111 in 2014.
Christian communities in both countries have enacted a wide range of all three types of responses—survival, association, and confrontation—which are made possible in part by the democratic character of both countries’ regimes. Where violence has been greatest in India, especially in Odisha, Christians have migrated, mostly within India. Indian Christians have also made extensive efforts to build alliances among churches and with Hindu and Muslim religious leaders, stressing common values and collaboration to provide social services. Christians have tended to reduce the openness and assertiveness of evangelization, and they have fought for their rights through the political system by staging demonstrations and strikes, supporting opposition parties that challenge the BJP, making common cause with Muslims, who are also a minority, and supporting secular government. Amid the Kandhamal riots, Christians engaged in limited violent retaliation (though not nearly on the scale of the violence they received), destroying some 120 Hindu homes.
Sri Lankan Christians illustrate some of the more creative survival strategies, such as representing churches as community centers in order to evade permit regulations and accommodating mainstream Buddhist culture by, for instance, celebrating Buddhist holidays. Christian churches—not just Catholics, who represent 80 percent of the country’s Christian population, but also evangelicals and Pentecostals—have built bridges both among themselves and with other faiths, often collaborating to provide social services, for example. Christian churches have conducted civic education campaigns among their followers and contributed to peacebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka after its civil war ended in 2009. Christian churches and organizations like the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka have also engaged in international advocacy on behalf of religious liberty in Sri Lanka.