HYDERABAD, India (Morning Star News) – Five families in eastern India were at a worship service last month when they received a phone call telling them to return to their homes immediately.
The Christians rushed nearly four miles from their church in Lisiya village to their homes in Durula, West Singhbhum District in Jharkhand state, where they found the shanty of one of the families in ruins. Villagers under the influence of tribal movement Adivasi Ho Samaj had left the home of Sidiu Bari and his family in shambles.
Members of the Adivasi Ho Samaj, which in turn had come under the influence of Hindu extremists to join forces against the spread of Christianity, persuaded villagers that they must drive the five Christian families out, area resident Subod Sinku told Morning Star News.
“They damaged Bari’s roof, threw away their clothes and utensils and took away a sum of 20,500 rupees [US$280],” Sinku said. “Even after all this, they were not done. There was lot of verbal abuse and verbal grilling that continued for at least a week after the [Oct. 18] incident.”
Threatened with expulsion from the village and with seizure of their farmland, three of the five families converted back to the tribal religion, Sarnaism, he said.
“Pastors and Christians from Lisiya and surrounding village churches tried to encourage them to continue in the Christian faith in these testing times,” Sinku said. “But we were only able to get Sidiu Bari to write a complaint and report the matter to a local police station.”
Police advised against filing a First Information Report (FIR), telling the Christians to try to settle the matter “amicably,” he said.
Another source said on condition of anonymity, “The situation in Jharkhand is turning worse since the Ho Samaj joined hands with the RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], holding meetings to instigate the tribal population against their own brethren for choosing to follow Christ.”
Sinku, 25, said that in his home village of Deoghar District, his family has warned him that he will be thrown out of his parents’ home and will not receive his share of land if he continues in his Christian faith.
“Putting faith in Christ is a matter of heart, and gradually as a new convert from the Adivasi religion grows in fellowship with other Christians, one’s entire lifestyle gets transformed,” Sinku said. “You learn many things. You become particular about hygiene, your intake of food, dressing, and you are not afraid to move to the city for education and get a job. This is not how indigenous tribes live. And, they think that we can afford the clothes, food and education from the supposed amount we received because of conversion to Christianity. It is completely false.”
Church Building Converted
In Ranchi District on Oct. 20, Sarna members broke a lock and barged into a church building while Christians were away attending a burial service of a young female member at another site, area residents said.
In the absence of anyone at the church building in Garh Khatanga, Hindu and tribal religion extremists surrounded the structure. Outside elements had instigated the villagers, who joined the extremists in breaking a cross on the building and chanting slogans against Christianity, Pastor Amandeep Bodra told Morning Star News.
Church members heard about the attack but, occupied with comforting family members who had lost a child, they decided not to try to stop them and thus avoided a fight, the pastor said. The next day they reported it to police, who have taken no action, he said.
“The Sarna activists had removed the cross and had set up a signboard saying, ‘Sarna Bhavan[Sarna Complex],’ and the police tell us to compromise with them,” he said.
The church purchased land and constructed its building on it about six months ago, and no one objected, he said. The now 70-member church had begun meeting in 2014.
The tribal animists have put their own lock on the building, which they have not been using, and they do not let the church use it, the pastor said.
“If we also break open the land and claim it back, the situation will get worse,” he said. “Police will not wait long to book severe cases against us, and there will be physical violence against us.”
Church leaders told the village president that they are willing to forfeit the land and requested the official show them another plot for construction of a church building, Pastor Bodra said. They have not heard back from him and are worshipping in a congregation member’s home.
In Surlu village, dozens of RSS members and tribal animists on Oct. 5 met to plan how to punish villagers for becoming Christians.
“The village president agreed to the propaganda put forth by them,” said area resident Nirmal Boraiburu. “Their plans were very harmful. They decided that Christians should not be allowed to go into the open fields to answer the call of nature. How can a human survive in such conditions?”
The Hindu extremists and Adivasis later told the Christians that they can farm their fields, but that they cannot pass through others’ fields to get to their own, Boraiburu said.
“Which means there will not be a path for us to walk to our field,” he said. “How can we plough or grow a crop when we can’t even enter the field? The entire village joined hands against us that nobody would give us work. But what prompted us to vacate the village was that some women made an announcement that now that these Adivasis have converted to Christians, they are no longer our tribe’s, and that Adivasi men are free to rape Christian women.”
The Christians have fled to Odisha state, Boraiburu said
“The pastor and believers here helped us build some huts to take shelter,” he said. “There in Surlu, women are usually alone at home after men go to work; it is not safe anymore. My two sisters are pursuing their studies, and dad works, in Chaibasa District. I left the property and everything in Surlu for their safety.”
As a handful of Christians among the majority Sarna adherents, they would have risked provoking the entire Adivasi community against them by reporting them to police, he said.
Earlier in Bokaro District, Hindu extremists used an elderly, bed-ridden man to give a false police statement of forcible conversion against Christians, sources said.
The ordeal began when pastor Sikandar Ravidas received a phone call from a police inspector telling him to bring documents related to church construction, on the request of revenue authorities.
Pastor Ravidas went to the police station near Lal Mithiya village, along with his father, Mahabir Das, and Binod Ravidas. There the inspector insisted they go with him to Chandrapura police station, said the pastor’s uncle, Manoj Ravidas.
“We received a phone call after he was taken into custody in Chandrapura,” Manoj Ravidas said. “He called us saying to pick up the documents, as they are being sent to jail the next day. After reaching the police station, we learned that police wanted to frame Binod Ravidas, former president of Lal Mithiya, in a case.”
A village official who is a staunch supporter of the RSS and the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party used the elderly Mani Ravidas to give a false statement to police that Christians were involved in forced in conversions, Manoj Ravidas told Morning Star News.
“The complainant, Mani Ravidas, is a bed-ridden old man,” he said, adding that the official obtained his thumb prints to sign an FIR against Binod Ravidas. “He brought the pastor into picture to make the case stronger under the state’s anti-conversion laws.”
Eight Christians, including the pastor, Ajay Ravidas, Lakhi Devi, Hiralal Shaw, Motilal Shaw, Robert Edward, were booked on Sept. 26 under Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for wounding religious feelings, and under Section 4 of Jharkhand’s “Freedom of Religion Act” (anti-conversion law). Under the law, forcible conversion can be punished with up to four years of prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,370).
“Pastor Ravidas’ wife and their 3-year-old are now under the protection of believers in Lal Mithiya village,” Manoj Ravidas said. “Even their own relatives can’t meet her or provide any sort of help as, the official might plot against them as well. He has a criminal history.”
Ajay Ravidas was taken into custody after he tried to report Hindu extremists chasing him on motorbikes, Manoj Ravidas said.
“He went to the police station to report against the bikers, but police arrested him instead,” Manoj Ravidas said. “He discovered in the police station that he also has been booked in the same FIR filed on Sept. 26.”
The initial judge and an additional district judge have rejected bail petitions.
“We are urging the church members to be united and strong, but they are very upset that the pastor has been in jail for more than 40 days now,” he said.
The coordinator of legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom-India’s Jharkhand unit, Sandeep Tigga, said it is sad that lower courts refuse to take cases booked under the anti-conversion law, so the file gets passed to appellate courts, where matters remain in litigation for so long.
“Christians avoid taking legal course of action in most cases as they fear revenge attacks from extremist groups,” Tigga added. “Most of the Christian youth are the first generation getting into education, and they don’t want court cases to be an impediment to their studies, and even if they take a courageous step to report, police advise them to settle with the help of a village council.”
ADF-India organizes sessions for pastors, youth leaders and Christians in Jharkhand to make them aware of their rights and provisions in the law, Tigga said. ADF undertakes legal advocacy for religious freedom in several countries.
The group notes in its campaign celebrating the 70th anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it is sadly ironic that Christians are persecuted in India, a country with a long tradition and legal framework of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the U.N. declaration asserts that believers have the freedom to practice their faith “in teaching, practice, worship and observance,” ADF notes in its campaign to obtain signatures supporting the Geneva Statement on Human Rights at www.ImHumanRight.org.
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution.