After being framed on false charges earlier this year, two Christians in eastern India recently spent a month in jail, where inmates beat them after discovering they were accused of defiling Hinduism, sources said.
Months after two Hindu extremists in Bihar state tried - and failed - to trap pastor Ajay Kumar and a Bible college student into actions that would serve as the basis for fraudulent conversion accusations, charges are still pending against the two Christians.
On March 17, the 32-year-old pastor was visiting a church member's house in Begu Sarai District, where he leads his Assemblies of God church, when he received a call from an anonymous person at around 11 a.m.
"The caller told me that he really wanted to know about Christ and asked us to meet him at Har Har Mahadev Chowk," Pastor Kumar told Morning Star News.
He and a 21-year-old student of a Bible college in Kerala state, identified only as Asharya, who was also visiting Begu Sarai, accompanied him to meet the unknown caller.
"After we waited for about 15 minutes at the chowk, two men in their 20s came on a two-wheeler, and one of them introduced himself as Neeraj Kumar," Kumar said. "After a brief introduction, they started saying a Christian girl and Hindu boy back in their village are in love, and they need our help."
The two men on a motorcycle then began to bombard them with questions.
"They asked me, 'How much would it cost to convert and marry in Christianity? Tell us your price. We are ready to pay whatever it costs. Please help us,'" Pastor Kumar told Morning Star News. "I refused. Asharya and I understood it's a trap."
The Christians told them that if they wanted know about Christ, then they would share the gospel, but that they don't convert anyone. The pastor told them that they don't do marriages and didn't want to be involved in the matter.
"I clarified that we can't be of any help, and that is when they became aggressive and started slapping us," Pastor Kumar said. "Then they dragged us both by the collar to the middle of the road and started shouting, 'Look at these people. They do conversions. These are the people who do conversions,' and because of his shouting a crowd, of over 50 people surrounded us."
Neeraj Kumar also called media to the area, he said.
"It was all pre-planned. The media started clicking our photos," Pastor Kumar said. "Police arrived on the spot, but Neeraj Kumar did not stop shouting. He told the police, 'These people carry out conversions, arrest them.'"
Police took both Christians into custody, and soon members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) arrived and pressured officers into filing a case against them, Pastor Kumar said. They were released at around 1:30 a.m. with the help of local pastors and other Christians.
Pastor Christopher Bhonsle was among those who went to the police station to help.
"Since I was also falsely charged by Hindu extremists back in 2002, I understood the situation and immediately rushed to the police station," Pastor Bhonsle said. "The next morning, a band of Hindu extremists came with the media, demanded I come downstairs to meet them, and badgered me with questions - 'Pastor, why are you helping the arrested Christians? Why are you involving in this?'"
The Hindu extremists began shouting, "Stop conversions," and that they would not tolerate "foreign activities" in India, he said.
Protesting outside his church facility, they shouted, "Stop giving money and converting Hindus," and, "We can even kill you," he said.
The two Christians were charged with destroying, damaging or defiling a place of worship or sacred object with intent to insult religion (Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code), punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a fine; and with maliciously insulting religion or religious beliefs (Section 295-A), punishable by up to three years of prison and/or a fine.
With the help of attorneys, the Christians filed a petition for anticipatory bail to prevent arrest, Bob Raj, senior pastor of Assemblies of God-Patna, told Morning Star News. On Sept. 14 a lower court judge issued an order stating the case "seems to be fit for regular bail." At the same time, police were unable to find any evidence for the allegations, so the legal team decided to pursue regular bail, Pastor Raj said.
"Since the local lawyers advised us that the court can issue a regular bail in case an arrest is made, Ajay and Asharya appeared before the Chief Judicial Magistrate on Nov. 2, and surrendered before the court of law," he said.
The two Christians were immediately taken into judicial custody, he said.
"Unfortunately, the petition for regular bail was transferred to another judicial magistrate, who rejected it," Raj said. "As a result, they had to spend 28 days in judicial custody."
The first 10 days in jail were the worst, Pastor Kumar said.
"Tensions in jail were heated during the first 10 days as the inmates got to know we were charged with defiling worship places of Hindus," he said. "We suffered there, too. They tortured us. In the middle of the night at around 12 a.m., we woke up and prayed till 3:30 a.m., we meditated on the chapters in Revelation and Psalms. We devoted our time for prayer and worship."
They did not try to convince anyone of their innocence, he said.
"Amazingly, after 10 days of observing us pray and meditate, they understood that we are framed in a false case," he said.
They read the parables of Jesus and Psalms with the inmates every day, he added.
"God moved their hearts - when we bowed down to pray, the inmates would break down wailing and crying," Pastor Kumar said. "They confessed they are sinners and came to Christ. God has done wonderful works inside the prison. We were 42 members in our ward, and over 30 of them came to Christ."
One of the newly converted inmates subsequently received bail after six years of incarceration, he said.
On Nov. 29, the two Christians' case came up for hearing before the judge who had earlier stated it was fit for regular bail, and he ordered the Christians released, he said.
Even in the case diary submitted to the court, police could not produce any evidence to support the charges, Kameshwar Singh, an attorney representing the Christians, told Morning Star News.
"There are two options for them now," Singh said. "Since the charges are false, they can appear before the court for the next hearings, and ultimately they will be acquitted, or they can go to the High Court in Patna to submit a petition to quash the FIR [First Information Report]," Singh said.
Pastor Kumar was able to celebrate Christmas with his wife, who is nine months pregnant, and family. His next hearing is scheduled for February.
Devesh Lal, coordinator of the Bihar Christian Leaders Fellowship, told Morning Star News that incidents of Hindu extremists attempting to entrap Christians in India are increasing at alarming rate.
"It has become a new trend of violence, where assailants approach the Christians unarmed but with a plan, frame them in false charges and put them behind the bars," he said. "The apprehension and fear of threats and communal disturbances is very much there in the church and Christians."
Pastor Raj agreed that such attacks are increasing.
"They don't appear as one of great physical injury, and there is not vandalizing or destruction of structures or material, and all the assailants are very young, aged below 25," he said. "In most of the cases, they are unarmed and their main motive is to create that psychosis of fear in the hearts of Christians. If we quantify the loss these false charges have led to in terms of money, it can be put as a huge sum, but the mental agony an accused Christian goes through cannot be quantified."
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.