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Prayer as protest: Persecution of Christians

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
27 Feb 2023
When the Christians approach the police with their complaint, they are not heard. Instead, some of them are picked up on trumped up charges. Christians in North India are, by and large, poor. Once they are arrested, they are not in a position to figh

As a Christian and journalist in the North for the last 50 years, I never felt discriminated against. Rather, I felt privileged. I was given prestigious assignments and my ‘impartiality” was counted upon when I was asked to write editorials, day after day, on the militancy in Punjab or the riots in Gujarat or elsewhere.

When Amartya Sen, who gave me a job, when I did not have one, articulated his theory of multiple identity in a book, I thought about my own identity in the national Capital. Yes, I am an Indian among other countrymen, a South Indian among other Indians, a Christian among other religionists, a Syrian Christian among other Christians, a Marthomite among other Syrian Christians and a member of St. James Mar Thoma Church, Dwarka among  the members of 1200 or so Marthoma parishes.

I am also a Malayali from the Travancore region, whose dialect is slightly different from the dialect spoken in the Malabar region of Kerala. These are some of the multiple identities I have, not forgetting my identity as a journalist which overtakes most other identities. I could proudly claim all these identities, unlike some Christians, especially Christian journalists, who are ashamed of admitting that they are Christians. 

I have heard them say, “I am a Christian but I am not that Christian”. I have never heard a Muslim telling me that he is “a Muslim but not that Muslim”. I have heard Hindus telling me that they are “atheists”. I never heard them telling me, “I am a Hindu but not that Hindu”.

I never felt ashamed of admitting that I am a Christian or a Malayali. In fact, when a Delhi boy called me a “Madrasi” soon after I reached Delhi in 1973, I retorted and called him a “Punjabi”. The moment I said this, he began laughing because he was indeed a Punjabi and it was not an insult. Later, I learnt some derogatory words in Hindi, though I never had to use them.

These were some of the thoughts that came to my mind when I left for Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Sunday last to join the Christian rally against the increasing attacks on the community in some North Indian states. It is one of the few designated areas for protest rallies. Police block both sides of the road to let the protesters pass through a rathole kind of entry.

Protests are allowed there because the noise does not reach the South Block where the Prime Minister sits or the North Block where the Home Minister sits. In fact, the voice of the protesters reaches only themselves. That does not minimise the importance of the protest.

As I squeezed myself into the protest area, I left behind an array of Vajra vehicles. You may wonder what a Vajra vehicle is! It is equipped with special features like multi-tube shell launchers in front and rear to lob teargas shells, emergency light bar with PA system for communication, external and  internal lighting arrangement with AC/DC and wire mesh protection on the glasses. The vehicles reflected just the preparedness of the Delhi Police!

In contrast, were a few thousand Christians squatting on the road or standing under trees on both sides listening to a choir singing melodious Hindi hymns from a makeshift stage. Were they worshipping or agitating?

I bump into my friend and senior journalist John Dayal who asks me to make a guess of the number of people assembled there. Journalists are supposed to have this ability to count the people in a crowd. Unfortunately I do not have that ability.

I counted the number people in an area I could visualise in my mind and multiplied the number of such areas with the number obtained to reach a figure which I do not want to disclose because it can be as correct as the number of soldiers died on the battlefield at Kurukshetra when the Mahabharata war ended on the 18th day.

Just then a friend and journalist, who claims to visit the area as part of his official duty, told me, “Sir, I can tell you, even national parties are unable these days to gather such a large number of people”. I was glad that I was there to take part in the history being written.

Another reason why I do not want to give the “exact” figure is that by the time I reached there, a large number of people had already left the place for home. Anyway, the turnout will make the organisers of the congregation proud.

As I was meeting some friends and my own church members, a person from Allahabad was introduced to the gathering. I had heard a lot about a church there. It was the Yeshu Ka Darbar church, run by one Dr Rajendra B Lal, who is now a bishop. I also had an occasion to meet him in Delhi.

I was told that it was the largest church in India in the sense that 25,000 to 30,000 people attended the worship service on all Sundays. No other church in India attracts so many worshippers. I was told that the people would begin arriving on the campus of the Allahabad Agriculture University on Saturday afternoon onwards, They came by bullock carts, buses, bicycles and tractors and other modes of transport.

They would spend the night there, attend the service and return to their villages after the worship on Sunday afternoon. I wanted to visit the church and spend a day there. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Now I wonder whether such a visit would ever be possible.

The person from Allahabad described how the state government has been harassing Dr Lal and his family. Criminal cases are being filed against him for alleged conversion of Hindus. I will tell you how ridiculous the charge is.

If there is one name that should be written in golden letters in the history of India it is that of Dr. Sam Higginbottom, an English-born Presbyterian missionary. He came to India, i.e., to Allahabad, to spread the word of God. He lived among the people there.

That is when Higginbottom realised that the Indian farmers had no scientific knowledge of farming. He himself did not know much. He went back to the US to study agriculture and came back and set up the Allahabad Agriculture Institute in 1910.

He taught the farmers of Allahabad and nearby areas the scientific way of doing agriculture. He introduced for the first time a subject called agricultural engineering. In due course, the institute became a university. Today it is named after Sam Higginbottom.

He became a good friend of Mahatma Gandhi, who visited the campus at Allahabad several times. They learnt from each other. I would call them two fathers, one the father of the nation and the other the father of modern Indian agriculture. 

Dr Lal is today the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Students belonging to all castes and communities study there. Instead of being thankful to the university and the Christian missionaries who had the forethought of setting it up, one year before the British set up the Pusa Institute at Pusa in Bihar in 1911, the VC and his family were being hounded by Yogi Adityanath’s administration.

I know the UP chief minister is fond of cows. When I visited his “ashram” at Gorakhpur a few weeks after he became chief minister, I noticed a hoarding that advertised Yogi introducing an ambulance service for cattle. I wish he knew that the first institute to provide a course in veterinary science was the same Allahabad institute.

I felt bad that some university authorities have been forced to go underground for fear of arrest. It was with helplessness writ large on the faces of the assembled that they heard about their travails.

Was it any wonder that thousands of people from Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan assembled at Jantar Mantar? Many of them carried placards that said, “Stop harassing priests and pastors”, “Stop filing false cases”, “Stop making false accusations of conversion”, “Stop using police against Christians” and “Stop attacking churches”.

Christians are not a monolithic community. This was evident at the gathering at Jantar Mantar too. For every Catholic priest, there was a Marthomite priest or a pastor. For every Jacobite, there was an Orthodox. Why I mention these two denominations is because they have been fighting each other for church buildings. They all stood together at Jantar Mantar.

There were Pentecostals, Protestants, Syrians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, Brethren’s, pastors, bishops, deacons and nuns. In fact, they represented the whole heterodox Christian community in the country.

There were not many from Meghalaya, famous for choir singing. In fact, when the name of a Meghalaya Choir was invited to come on stage, all one could see was a lone singer with an attractive headgear. As he held the microphone and sang a melodious carol, everyone was stunned by his brilliant performance. It was difficult to believe that it was a one-man show.

Rajasthani women are renowned for their choice of multi-coloured, dark-hued dress. They presented a folk song that held the audience spell-bound. Many could not help swaying their bodies and tapping their feet as they listened to the rendering.

Punjab has been in the news with campaigns portraying Christians as trying to proselytise the whole Sikh and Hindu population. Nothing can be farther from the truth as a team of Christians from the border state presented a dance that has elements of worship and bhangra, the folk dance of Punjab. For once those present knew what the word vigour meant. Could anyone say that they were converted forcibly?

The fact of the matter is that conversion is a bogey used by the Sangh Parivar to demonise the Christian community. There has not been a single case of forcible conversion to Christianity. Once the idea that Christians have been converting is spread, it gives licence to anti-social elements and sectarian and communal forces to attack Christians.

No, this does not happen only in BJP-ruled states. Chhattisgarh, which is going to the polls later this year and where the Congress is in power, is one of the worst states in terms of attack on Christians.

The attack happens at different levels. Suddenly a group of people barge into a hall or church where people are praying or singing. They begin attacking the people, destroying the church property till the scared faithful leave the church.

When the Christians approach the police with their complaint, they are not heard. Instead, some of them are picked up on trumped up charges. Christians in North India are, by and large, poor. Once they are arrested, they are not in a position to fight for their legal rights.

Even if an organisation like the ADF comes forward to fight their legal cases, it will take weeks for the arrested persons to secure bail. One can imagine what happens to the family if the bread-winner goes to jail. This is sheer harassment.

The United Christian Forum has listed nearly 600 incidents of attacks, big and small, against the Christian community in 2022. The Forum found that the number of attacks has been increasing, not decreasing.

One interesting tidbit is that in not even one case has the Christians retaliated against their attackers. I remember asking the late Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese why despite so much violence against the Christians in Kandhamal, there was not a single incident of counter attack.

He said he was very happy that even in places where they were in good numbers, they did not attack the aggressors. “My greatest strength is the moral high ground that we Christians occupy”, he told me.

Once again, this was clear at Jantar Mantar where the policemen deputed to control the crowd had no work at all as the Christian protestors conveyed their anguish, not anger, their disappointment, not hopelessness, through their dignified protest that resembled a prayer meeting.


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