Christians call day of action in India plan schools protest

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The Independent Online
AN EPIDEMIC of violence against Christians in India has prompted an ecumenical group to declare a "day of action" on 4 December, when Christian schools and colleges across the country will close in protest.

Last Sunday, about 40 armed thugs forced their way into St Thomas Evangelical Church in Mulai, near Mangalore, in the southern state of Karnataka. They broke up a communion service, attacking the congregation, which consisted mostly of women and children, and beat the Indian pastor.

This was the first attack in Karnataka, a state with a substantial Christian minority. It follows attacks on Christian communities in other parts of the country, which have multiplied since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power eight months ago.

Churches have been destroyed, congregations broken up, schools vandalised, Bibles burnt and prayer halls looted. In September, in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, five nuns were abducted from their convent and gang-raped. There have been few arrests for any of these crimes.

The United Christian Forum for Human Rights, a newly established ecumenical organisation, believes that of the 120 attacks on Christians that have been recorded since 1964, more than 70 have taken place this year alone.

The reason for the inrease in attacks is plain: the BJP's grassroots supporters include extremist Hindu zealots who have seized the opportunity offered by BJP rule to pursue their own brutal agenda without fear of legal consequences.

Organisations such as Bajrang Dal, set up after the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS have long thrived on Hindu paranoia about the "divisive" and "oppressive" activities of India's minorities. In the past the target was generally the far larger Muslim community, but as the BJP cannot risk alienating the Muslim vote for electoral reasons, the focus has switched to the 23 million Christians.

The violence has been accompanied by anti-Christian rhetoric, with the Hindu groups voicing their view that foreign missionaries should be expelled. A leading figure in the RSS, considered to be the most disciplined of the extremist groups, said the recent gang-rape of nuns was due to "the anger of patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces".

Against this increasingly ominous backdrop, Christians across India have come together to demonstrate in what may be the most effective way they can - by shutting down their schools and colleges.

India's Christians are a diverse community. Sixty per cent are so-called "Dalits", "the Oppressed", or what used to be called "Untouchables". Christians in the south-western state of Kerala are one of the oldest congregations in the world.

Another 15 to 20 per cent of Christians are tribal people, many in the north-east where in some states they are the majority. But it is in the Christian-run schools and colleges that they have the strongest impact on the country. It is the majority Hindu community that gets most benefit: Christian students at such institutions amount to 10 per cent of the intake at the most, and sometimes as little as 3 per cent.

The shutdown will be the first such action by the Christian community as a whole. Until recently Christians in India have felt little threatened.

"Christians have had a lot of trust in their rulers," said John Dayal, convener of the new forum, "and they forgot that the state and the polity in India are becoming more vicious, and that this is not a state from which we can expect generosity - or even the rule of law."