Persecution is increasing in India. How will our churches respond?
By John Caldwell
The year was 1950 and colonial India was debating its constitution as a new, independent nation. Drafters of the constitution had written an article on freedom of religion that “each individual has the right to profess, practice and propagate his faith.” The constitutional convention engaged in much debate over that word, propagate. The Hindu majority feared that word would be used by a small Christian minority as an excuse to proselytize.
Ironically it was a Hindu delegate who stood to his feet and said the word propagate must be included in the new constitution in this article on freedom of religion. For, he said, “To the Christian it is inherent to propagate his faith. If a Christian is faithful to his faith, he must propagate his faith. So if you do not allow the Christian to propagate his faith, you do not allow him to practice his faith.” Isn’t it sad that a Hindu in India had a better grasp of what it means to be a Christian than seemingly most people who profess Christ as Lord and Savior!
The Reality in India Today
The Indian constitution that was produced supposedly guarantees freedom of religion in Articles 25 through 28. Article 25 guarantees that every person in India shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate religion, including the right to declare freely and openly one’s faith. That includes the right to communicate a person’s belief to other people. However, it does not include the right to convert another person, because the other person is “equally entitled to freedom of conscience.” India’s Supreme Court has thus upheld the validity of laws that prohibit “forced conversions” which are defined as “by force, fraudulence or allurement.” The courts have in turn applied that to social benefits offered by Christians, especially benefits to Hindus, who in turn convert to Christianity.
We all have heard stories from India about Christian homes and church buildings being burned, pastors being murdered and mutilated, their wives being raped, and other Christians being beaten and left homeless. The day I received a request to write this article, in fact, I also received word that pastor Sultan Masih was martyred in Punjab, a northwestern state of India. Recently an Indian evangelist friend of mine said more and more villages have signs posted telling Christians to stay out. In the state of Tamil Nadu, friends of mine were meeting in a fishing village by the Bay of Bengal where they were attempting to establish a new church. Hindu militants riding motorcycles and swinging chains invaded the meeting and seriously injured some of the workers. The Christians were told that if they returned they would be killed. And yet, courageous and committed workers continue to spread the gospel at the risk of their lives as our Lord and Master commanded in his Great Commission.
India’s Christian History
The gospel was brought to India in the first century of the church’s existence by the apostle Thomas (ca. 50 AD). Tradition says he was martyred, run through by a spear or lance, on a hill just outside of modern-day Chennai (formerly Madras). Tradition also tells us Bartholomew followed him there a decade later. When Vasco da Gama visited Calicut, India, in 1498, he found a large number of Christians, especially in Kerala. Of course, William Carey pioneered the modern-day Protestant effort in India when he arrived there in 1793.
The first missionaries associated with the Restoration Movement entered the country in 1882. British Churches of Christ established a mission there in 1909. The first of many direct-support missions was established in 1926. Harry Schaeffer and his family were among the early leaders. But the work in India took off under Art and Ruth Morris in 1950.
Today at least 30 direct-support missions with thousands of associates minister across the country. These missions operate schools, orphanages, children’s homes, leper colonies, hospitals, Bible colleges, and have planted thousands of local congregations. Some have extended their influence to neighboring Nepal and Bhutan. Their impact for both temporal and eternal good is beyond description.
Increasing Opposition and Persecution
Much of the increasing opposition and persecution is attributable to the rise of a fundamentalist Hindu political party—the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. As the BJP has gained power, it has used that power to pass anti-Christian legislation as well as to encourage tacitly, if not overtly, violence against Christians. The senior leader of the World Hindu Council has said, “Currently there are 82 percent Hindus in India. . . . We won’t tolerate Hindus becoming a minority in the country.” His stated goal is for India to be 100 percent Hindu.
With the backing of the BJP, more and more states are seeking to adopt “anti-conversion laws.” Five states have them in place and a sixth is in the process of adoption. The states use the “allurement provision” of the “forced conversion” prohibition, and define allurement as the social benefits that are basic to Christian ministry (i.e., feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing for widows, educating the illiterate, caring for orphans, working against child sex-trafficking, etc.).
The most publicized use of this interpretation has resulted in Compassion International leaving India after 48 years of ministry there, taking with it $45 million yearly in investment and ministry to 145,000 needy children. Compassion International’s exit was also brought about by the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act which denies any NGO (nongovernmental organization) the right to receive foreign funds if it is suspected of using those funds to evangelize. Thousands of such organizations, including those associated with the Restoration Movement, have been subjected to careful examination and harassment, with at least 11,000 NGOs losing their licenses to accept foreign funds since 2014.
Many other forces are at work against Christianity. The RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP, has begun a program called Ghar Wapsi, the Hindu term for “homecoming,” seeking to bring Christians and other non-Hindus back into the fold of Hinduism. Numerous incidents of threats, intimidation, and offers of cash payments to Christians who return to Hinduism have been reported. The rising tide of violence, murder, and intimidation by the RSS, and government action against Christian workers have caused Open Doors to identify the world’s second-most populous county as the 15th-most dangerous country for Christians, up from 31st just four years ago. In 2016, the All India Christian Council recorded an almost 20 percent increase in attacks and a 40 percent rise in violence against Christians. Martyrdom of believers reportedly doubled in just one year.
The Church’s Response
I’ve made a number of teaching and preaching trips to India over the past 47 years and have come to love the people there. I’ve spoken for the All India Christian Convention and come to appreciate the remarkable diversity of the Indian church. India is a mysterious country of great contrasts: abject poverty and remarkable affluence; widespread illiteracy and some of the best-educated and most-brilliant people in the world; backward villages and cosmopolitan cities; primitive farming methods and leadership in the world of technology. It is also a complex country filled with racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. India consists of more than 4,500 distinct people groups and 18 major Indian languages with scores of sublanguages. The caste system pervades all religious and social structures in India. All these facts have a significant impact on the practice and spread of Christianity.
Because the intensity of persecution varies from state to state, no one-size-fits-all response exists. However, it seems likely that in the near future the American church will be very limited in financing Christian work in India. That’s why it is important the churches there become self-supporting, and many are. Many churches in states where Christianity is strongest are supporting missionary-evangelists for church planting where there are fewer and poorer churches.
In regard to the “anti-evangelism” laws, some Christian workers require converts to request baptism in writing, explaining their decision, before being immersed. Others take converts to a neighboring state where no such laws prohibit baptism. Christian missions often ask for a written request from a resident of a hostile village, inviting the Christian evangelist into their home, before going into that area. Since building permits for churches are very difficult to obtain, application is often made for construction of a community hall or a service center. But most of all, and I cannot overemphasize this, disciples must be taught to make disciples, the key to the growth of the church in any country or circumstance. Meanwhile, Christian workers in India must continue to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, New American Standard Bible).
When Jesus gave the Great Commission he did not say, “Go and make disciples where it is easy and unopposed.” No, he said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” . . . period (Matthew 28:19). In fact, Jesus promised we would face persecution. Furthermore, history demonstrates that the church has always flourished under persecution. As that Hindu delegate said back in 1950: “To the Christian, it is inherent to propagate his faith. . . . He must propagate his faith.” May we all embrace and practice that principle, even as we pray for the church in India.
John Caldwell retired from a 36-year ministry with Kingsway Christian Church of Avon, Indiana. He has served as president of both the International Conference on Missions and the North American Christian Convention.