A troubling trend is emerging in the world’s largest democracy.
Millions of Indians believe the country belongs to Hindus and that all other religions, including Christianity and Islam, must be eliminated from society.
Human rights groups have accused India’s Prime Minister and his government of supporting the extremist view. It’s led to a surge in violence against Christians often with tacit approval from the central government.
At 16 years old, “Paul” was instructed to target Christians by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or R.S.S., a radical Hindu paramilitary organization.
“Since I was a Hindu and part of the R.S.S., I became a staunch follower of their Hindu principles, and because of that, killing Christians and pastors became my goal,” Paul told CBN News.
We’ve concealed Paul’s real identity for safety.
He says the R.S.S. singles out Christians because so many Hindus in India are abandoning their faith to follow Jesus Christ. One of the group’s early founders said Christians are “anti-national” and “hostile” and should be treated as such.
R.S.S. members often combine religious Hindu education with self-defense classes and exercises.
The RSS, parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, combines religious education with “self-defense” exercises. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
“They told us Christianity doesn’t belong to our country because they are converting people therefore we have to attack pastors and demolish their churches so that our country will remain a Hindu country,” said Paul.
Hindus make up just under 80% of India’s population. Muslims are at 14%. Christianity is India’s third-largest religion with about 26 million followers, or about 2.3% of the population and their numbers are steadily growing.
Determined to stop the growth, Paul thought he had his chance when a pastor visited his hostel. Instead, the encounter changed his life when the pastor shared the gospel with him.
“My heart was breaking when I heard that Jesus Christ’s blood was sacrificed for me, that Jesus Christ loved me, and He gave his blood for my sins. I dedicated myself to Christ right there and then,” Paul said.
Paul now serves as a traveling pastor in remote areas of India’s Karnataka state, often referred to as a graveyard of pastors because of the intense persecution Christians face here.
His church is repeatedly attacked by R.S.S. gangs. He’s been put in prison for preaching. Yet, it hasn’t stopped his ministry.
“Even in jail I felt God’s love, even though I received the beatings, I was rejoicing and because of that I am grateful to God.”
India, with its 1.4 billion people, is the world’s largest democracy. However, human rights and religious freedom advocates say democracy has been in retreat ever since the Hindu-led BJP government and its leader Narendra Modi took power in 2014.
“It’s really the most sophisticated government as far as restricting religious freedoms outside of China,” said Dr. David Curry, a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
USCIRF has documented an unprecedented uptick in violence against Christians under Modi’s rule. The majority of attacks are carried out by R.S.S. and other Hindu extremists groups with ties to the prime minister’s political party.
Modi is accused of fanning the flames of Hindutva, a radical ideology that teaches only Hindus are true Indians and that all other religions, especially Christians and Muslims, are foreigners who must be removed from society.
“They have a goal to push Christianity out of India,” Curry told CBN News. “They see India as the holy land of Hinduism and they intend to force that to happen.”
That includes passing laws that criminalize religious conversions, particularly targeting Christian and Muslim minorities.
Last September, Karnataka became the 10th Indian state to pass the so-called Anti-Conversion Law carrying a 3 to 5-year prison term for anyone found guilty of forcibly converting people to Christianity.
“Joseph” not his real name, pastors in different cities and villages in Karnataka. We’ve taken similar precautions to protect his safety.
“Ever since this anti-conversion law was passed, the authorities claim that we are forcibly converting people,” Joseph told CBN News.
He says R.S.S. and other right-wing Hindu groups accuse him of converting Hindus by offering them money or other forms of bribes. He denies those charges.
“When we started the ministry 35 years ago, we didn’t have so many problems,” Joseph recalled. “Those days we had religious freedom, but now we can’t even talk, can’t even give out a pamphlet, can’t do anything. That’s the situation that we find ourselves in today. Everyone has to run their churches with fear.”
Like Pastor Paul, Joseph too has endured the wrath of Hindu radicals.
“They’ve damaged my bicycles, set Bibles on fire and burnt it, come into our church during service and beat people up,” Joseph said. “The police have come to my house several times; I’ve been taken to the police station and repeatedly accused of forcing people to convert. They never have any evidence.”
So far 12 of India’s 28 states, most of them ruled by Modi’s BJP party, have passed laws regulating religious conversions.
These states have also witnessed a surge in mob violence against Indian Christians.
Don Shenk heads up an organization that’s been sharing the gospel primarily through Christian radio broadcasts in India since 1978.
“It is amazing how Christians are standing firm in their faith,” Shenk told CBN News.
His group has documented cases where Hindu extremists have discriminated against new Christian converts.
Authorities, especially at the village level, do little to nothing to protect the vulnerable believers.
“It is amazing the number of people who are being banned from going to the village well, not allowed to purchase foods at the market and endure anywhere from being chased out or being ostracized from family and community to actually being beaten, being killed, having their property destroyed,” Shenk said.
Although India’s Constitution gives Christians the right to preach, Shenk says the church in India must still be careful.
“Pray for the believers to stand firm in their faith and pray for those who are doing the persecution that their hearts will be changed because we have seen that happen,” Shenk said. “A village priest threatened to smash a radio that somebody was using for outreach but as he made those threats he also came close and listened to the radio and he himself embraced Jesus Christ as his savior.”