Security stepped up at Delhi churches as Christians in India fear attack

Congregations endure tense time during Christmas in a country where Hindu extremism is on the rise and other religions are viewed with suspicion.

When Father Anthony Francis rose early to open his church on Christmas Day, two sleepless souls had already been camped on its doorstep for hours.

They were among the hundreds of armed police standing 24-hour guard over Delhi’s chapels, churches and cathedrals during the festive period.

The church in question is in fact a local community centre – the actual St Sebastian’s Church, just next door, was burnt down in a mysterious blaze one year ago, in one of six suspected attacks on Delhi’s churches last Christmas.

Even though investigations officially blamed the incidents on random vandalism and faulty electrical wiring, a threat analysis was carried out by police chiefs in the following weeks.

The result was 1,500 dedicated guards now in place to reassure anxious congregations.

But one year on, with no culprits apprehended, Delhi’s Christian congregations are in little doubt as to who was behind the attacks.

“There was a desperate fear for a few days that they are attacking the churches now to suppress the Catholics,” said Father Cyril Patrick of west Delhi’s Church of the Resurrection, which also saw its nativity manger burnt to the ground last January.

“The fear was Hindu nationalists.”

India’s ruling BJP party, which is often linked to more extreme Hindu nationalist groups, has distanced itself from the attacks, and won praise from some quarters for leading the security response.

“Immediate action was taken on the part of the police and the administration also. The government is serious about it,” said Abdul Rasheed Ansari, a BJP spokesman.

“The people involved are in isolation. Naturally there are fanatics in any religious groups. The Rightists in every religion want to cause certain things.”

But others have questioned whether efforts really have been made to identify the culprits.

“If the police did find out who started the fire, will they reveal it? Are they free to? They are puppets of the government,” said Father Francis.

And while attacks on Muslims by Hindu fundamentalists have made international headlines, violence against India’s Christians continues.

Christian activists recorded some 194 religiously motivated attacks in India on members of their faith over the 12 months to May, including seven deaths in the past year.

Just this month, hundreds of Christians in Uttar Pradesh wrote an open letter to Narendra Modi, the prime minister, urging him to take action against a rise in the number of attacks against their community by “far-Right groups”.

Among the incidents, a priest was beaten, his car set ablaze and his Bible torn to shreds by a mob of Hindu nationalists. When contacted by the Telegraph, he was afraid to speak for fear of reprisals.

Soon after, a Christian graveyard outside the city of Meerut which contained the graves of many Britons from the colonial era was desecrated.

“Various Hindu fundamentalist groups are behind it,” said Vijayesh Lal, of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

“Even now there never goes a day when we don’t hear about thee or four incidents.”

Attacks on India’s Christian community – which makes up just two per cent of the population, but numbers 24 million people – were extremely rare until the late 1990s.

But in 1998, a Hindu mob killed Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children by burning them alive as they slept in their car in Orissa, allegedly for his proselytising activity.

Since then, there has been a dramatic increase.

The same southern Indian state witnessed even worse anti-Christian bloodshed 10 years later. The 2008 attacks in Kandhamal – sparked by the murder of a local Hindu leader who was heading a campaign to reconvert the Christian tribal people back to Hinduism – killed dozens, and prompted Pope Benedict to speak out.  Indeed, “religious conversion” continues to be a source of controversy between the faiths, with evangelical Christian missionaries in particular accused of luring Indians – particularly those from tribal communities – to switch faiths.

One member of the RSS – a powerful political group closely affiliated to Mr Modi’s ruling BJP party – even claimed last year that Mother Teresa’s good deeds had been conducted purely to promote conversion to the Catholic faith.

“It’s like to be a Christian is a crime against the nation, and Christians don’t have the freedom to propagate their faith,” said Anil Cuoto, the Catholic Archbishop of Delhi.

“Since that time Christians, in order to call ourselves a Christian, would hesitate or feel frightened.”

BJP members have attempted to table “anti-conversion bills” and even a constitutional amendment to stop the alleged practice.

Though unsuccessful, it is feared that polarising gestures like these may inflame hatred.

Additional security around churches, as well as a broader crackdown on Hindu fundamentalists, have seen violent attacks fall in 2015. But Christian leaders believe there is now a more subtle form of persecution at work.

“Sometimes we Christians feel that we have to fight for our survival,” said Archbishop Cuoto. “There’s a sense of insecurity, that we don’t know at what time an attack could come.”

He points to efforts by Mr Modi’s BJP government last year to introduce a mandatory “Good Governance” day for schoolchildren and government workers on December 25 – a move that would effectively have ended Christmas as a public holiday.

“I spoke out against it because by changing that you’re not just diminishing the significance of Christmas but you’re actually targeting Christians as a community.”

“By calling people to work on that day, it was an attack on what Christians hold as very dear to them.”

The initiative was quietly watered down after media reports elicited an overwhelming negative response. For now at least, Christmas in India remains.

Indeed, the celebrations are vibrant as ever in Delhi’s churches. Father Patrick had initially feared that his parishioners might not be ready to return for carol singing this year after the fire, but his flock have turned out in even greater numbers.

“They were very willing to. It is to show that we are not frightened,” he said.

Speaking in the shadow of the burnt-out husk of his former church, Father Francis conceded that his congregation felt more at risk than before the attack, but struck a similar note of defiance.

“We can’t go round with fear in our minds,” he said.

“Of course we fear it will happen again,” says Susan George, one of his congregation.

“We felt shocked, as though our house was burning. But what can we do? Only pray.”

Source: The Telegraph