The story of Ruben and his family
He does not speak a lot. And smiles even less. He quietly sits on his mother’s lap, while she tells 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 difficult to grow crops or keep livestock. Ruben’s family is used to hardship. But nothing prepared them for what happened a few years 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 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 recalls, ‘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 are incidents like it confined to small communities of evangelical Christians. They increasingly happen across India and have a specific method. First, aggressors physically assault Christian believers. Then they drag their victims to the police station and accuse them of trying 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.
Nativity scene drawn by young Ruben from India.
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 India for nearly 2,000 years. 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.
So why are incidents of hate and violence increasing? One reason is that in recent years, the nationalist Hindutva ideology has grown in strength. Its fanatics want to purge the entire nation of all non-Hindu religions.
While Muslims are stigmatized as ‘terrorists’, Christians are 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 a Catholic Bishop from 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, 447 cases relating to offenses promoting hostility between different groups on the basis of religion, race, and place of birth were registered in 2016, an increase of over 18 per cent compared to the previous year. Other research has produced similar results. The Pew Research Center’s 2017 Religious Restrictions Report puts India among the countries with the highest overall restrictions on religion.
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 have faced 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 director of advocacy, Asia, for ADF International, is familiar with most of these incidents. She also oversaw the litigation in defense 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 been undermined by anti-conversion laws.’ Thanks to the tireless work of our partner lawyers in India, both Ruben’s father and mother were acquitted of all charges against them this year. The family will finally be able to spend Christmas together without any legal worries or the fear of jail.
Despite mounting pressure, Mrs. Arora believes that not all is lost for religious freedom in India. 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.
Partner with us to promote and protect fundamental freedoms
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 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, little Ruben, his parents, and their group of believers should have the freedom to practice their Christian faith ‘in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.
If you want Christians worldwide, like Ruben and his parents, to enjoy this right in the future, join us today in the promotion and protection of our fundamental freedoms.