He did not speak a lot. And he smiled even less. Most of the time he sat quietly on his mother’s lap, while she told the story of their family. At only six years of age, little Ruben has already seen quite a lot. He is also the only member of his family who is able to see: his mother lost her sight when she was a child and his father, a Christian pastor, has been blind from birth. They live in a little village somewhere in the plains of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Life in the rural areas is hard. The hot, arid climate makes it hard to grow crops or keep livestock. Ruben’s family is used to hardship. But nothing had prepared them for what happened a couple of months ago.
Ruben’s father was holding a worship meeting at their church. Ten to 15 people had gathered to pray when an angry mob stormed the church. They yelled angrily and started to assault worshippers. Eventually, the pastor and his family were taken into custody and brought to the closest police station. ‘They separated us from my husband, stripped me and my boy naked,’ Ruben’s mother recalled, ‘and then they beat us again and again.’ The family was kept in jail for three days and three nights until they were released on bail.
This was not an isolated incident—nor is it confined to small communities of evangelical Christians. It is increasingly happening across India. There is a method to this: first, aggressors physically assault Christian believers. Then they drag their victims to the police and accuse them of having tried to forcefully convert someone. The police, especially in more remote areas, tend to believe the aggressors, not the victims. Sometimes local authorities even openly side with the assailants.
Christians contribute to Indian society in many important ways. There are, for example, more than 30,000 educational institutions and 100,000 hospital beds under the Catholic Church’s management alone, with both services highly valued by Indian society. Although Christians are a small minority, representing less than three per cent of the population, they trace their presence in India back to Saint Thomas and have been a vital part of Indian society for nearly 2,000 years.
So why are incidents of hate and violence increasing? One reason is that in recent years, the nationalist Hindutva ideology has grown quite strong. Its fanatics want to purge the entire nation of all non-Hindu religions. Though such ideas have been around for some time, it was only when the Barathiya Janata Party (BJP) of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power in 2014 that they gained wider acceptance. Today, politicians publicly announce that the time has come to care more about the rights of the majority than the minority. As the national elections loom next year, the political rhetoric has only intensified.
While Muslims are stigmatized as ‘terrorists’, Christians are being portrayed as an even greater threat–since they are ostensibly trying to convert faithful Hindus. ‘They are using false accusations to incite hate. And nobody in their party or in the government is revoking their problematic statements,’ says Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, General Secretary of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India. He has shown great concern about the growing climate of suspicion and hate against religious minorities.
The government’s own data bears this out: according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 475 cases relating to offences promoting hostility between different groups on the basis of religion, race, and place of birth were registered in 2016, an increase of over 41 per cent compared to 2014. Other research has produced similar results. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Restrictions Report puts India among the countries with the fiercest restrictions on religious freedom.
In recent years, there has been a political push for anti-conversion laws, making it almost impossible to convert to any religion other than Hinduism. While the first of these laws dates back to 1961, there are now eight Indian states that have introduced so-called ‘religious freedom acts’. Some require the convert and his ’sponsor’ not only to inform the authorities but also to seek their permission. A pastor or a priest now has to ask the government before he is allowed to baptize a convert. There is also some risk involved in making a conversion official. Several pastors and priests had to face criminal investigations for ‘forceful conversion’ after a baptism was reported to the authorities. Converts and church leaders may easily become targets of mob violence and other forms of harassment.
Tehmina Arora, a human rights lawyer and legal consultant to ADF International, is familiar with most of these incidents. She is also overseeing the litigation in defence of little Ruben and his family. ‘Nobody should be persecuted because of his or her faith,’ she says. ‘The Indian constitution grants the right to religious freedom. Everybody is free to practice their religion. But we cannot take it for granted any longer. We have to fight for this right. In too many states it has already become undermined by anti-conversion laws.’ Thankfully, both Reuben’s father and mother were acquitted in June 2018.
Despite mounting pressure, Ms. Arora believes that not all is lost. Together with her team and alongside other organizations, she won more than 200 cases on behalf of falsely accused priests, nuns, pastors, and laypeople. In May 2018, a court granted compensation to Christian families who had suffered from anti-religious violence during the 2008 Kandhamal riots in Odisha. It took ten long years but justice has been finally granted to those who lost loved ones.
Will you join us?
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, ADF International reaffirms the fundamental understanding that human rights are based on the inherent dignity of each person. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. According to Article 18 of the Declaration, little Ruben, his parents, and their group of believers should have the freedom to practice their Christian faith ‘in teaching, practice, worship and observance’. They’re human, right?
If you want Ruben to have this right in the future, join us today in the promotion and protection of your fundamental freedoms.
Add your voice by signing The Geneva Statement on Human Rights at www.ImHumanRight.org