Hindu extremists in Chhattisgarh state this month kept hundreds of Christians from a prayer service and attacked those who managed to attend, and in neighboring Madhya Pradesh a frivolous accusation led to the arrest of Christmas carol singers, sources said.
At a prayer service where 2,000 people were expected in Tarra Kopra village, Raipur District, Chhattisgarh state on Dec. 6, only 300 Christians made it past Hindu extremist check-points, said pastor Lachhan Ram Sahu of Blessing Prayer Hall (Ashirwad Prarthana Bhavan).
On a day where a Hindu event known as a Ram Kathan was also scheduled in the area, Hindu nationalists positioned men at village entry points and asked them where they were headed, Pastor Sahu told Morning Star News.
"If they said they were going to the church service, they were shooed away, and if they tried to reason with them, they were threatened and manhandled," Pastor Sahu said. "Those who came to attend the Ram Kathan were allowed to enter the village and proceed straight to the Ram Kathan venue."
Christian women who objected at the check-points were disgracefully manhandled, he said.
"The people who were not allowed entry into the village later reported to me that the women were caught by their throats, and their clothes were pulled in order to threaten them," he said.
When the worship service began at 10 a.m., a mob of 700 hard-line Hindus attacked, led by members of the Hindu extremist Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, said Pastor Sahu, 34, who has been ministering in the area for five years. They struck vehicles parked outside the prayer hall with sticks and set two of them on fire, he said.
Two cars, one van, one auto-rickshaw and 100 motorbikes were destroyed, he said.
Setting up a sound system at the entrance of the prayer hall and shouting insults and threats, they surrounded the building and yelled slogans accusing Pastor Sahu of carrying out forceful conversion, he said.
"They shouted from the mike, name-calling me a butcher, low-caste and much more, using all kinds of vulgar language," he said. "They said that they will carry their flag in one hand and a sword in the other and kill all those who dared to enter the prayer hall."
The Hindu extremists broke open the door of a room at the prayer hall entrance and ransacked it, breaking chairs, windows and a refrigerator, and stole a DVD player, 26,000 rupees (US$460) and other equipment, he said.
"While breaking the chairs, they threw the chairs on some worshippers who tried to stop them, causing them minor injuries," Pastor Sahu said. "But before they could reach the main hall and attack the worshippers sitting inside, the police arrived."
The mob demolished tents surrounding the prayer hall and its boundary wall. Three Christian males were kidnapped, with one of them managing to escape shortly afterward, and two others returned by 8 p.m., he said, adding that the kidnappers absconded and have not been arrested.
Anticipating opposition, Pastor Sahu had submitted a written application on Nov. 11, requesting police protection for the event, which was scheduled to last until 5 p.m. He obtained permission for the event, he said.
The service continued in spite of the chaos outside the prayer hall. About 12 policemen arrived two hours after the service began, and when they were unable to disperse the violent Hindu mob, a police force of about 200 arrived, he said. A First Information Report (FIR) was filed against 13 Hindu extremists on Dec. 7.
Arun Pannalal, president of the Chattisgarh Christian Forum, told Morning Star News that persecution in the area is highly organized.
"There are no second- or third-generation Christians found in the area," he said. "As soon as a new church is established, they are intensely persecuted, and the church gradually dies down."
Pastor Sahu said he had heard from villagers that Hindu extremists had held a meeting five days before the prayer service and planned to disrupt it.
"They discussed that I was the one carrying out most conversions in Chhattisgarh," he said. "But I was determined to obey the leading [of God], despite strong opposition, and I praise God that my meeting was a success. The policemen did not interrupt the on-going prayer, and I was allowed to carry it out as scheduled."
Local newspapers published false reports the next day portraying the attack as a clash between two groups, even though "not one of the Christians retaliated to the attack," Pastor Sahu said, adding that three media reporters interviewed him but did not publish anything he said.
The prayer hall is built over a 10,000-square-foot area and has a seating capacity of 300 members inside the hall, but outside it and within the boundary walls there is seating space to accommodate another 1,700 people, he said.
Since the event police have provided 25 to 30 policemen to guard the prayer hall night and day, said Pastor Sahu, who lives on the premises with his wife and two children along with other relatives.
Christmas Carolers Arrested
In neighboring Madhya Pradesh state, 30 Catholic seminarians singing Christmas carols, along with two priests, were arrested on Dec. 14 in a village near Satna after a Hindu extremist accuse them of offering money for him to convert.
Eight priests who went to the police station to inquire about the seminarians of St. Ephrem's Theological College in Satna were beaten by Hindu extremists, and then the priests were also detained, Catholic officials said.
"The complicity of the police who arrested the seminarians and stood by helplessly as the priests and seminarians were assaulted is disgusting and appalling," Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said in a statement.
All of those detained were reportedly released by the next day.
"Shamefully, the situation outside the police station was allowed to be so hostile that even those who wanted to approach the detained persons could get no access to them," Mascarenhas said. "The charge of conversion on which the priests and seminarians are detained is frivolous and laughable."
A parked car of the inquiring priests was set on fire by Hindu extremists, he said.
"All right-thinking Indians will hang their heads in shame at these terrorists who have taken on the garb of 'religious police,'" Mascarenhas said.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, the hostile tone of his National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against non-Hindus has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 15th on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2017 World Watch List of the countries where Christians experience the most persecution.