By Our India Correspondent
NEW DELHI, March 3, 2021 (Morning Star News) – Armed Hindu extremists in Madhya Pradesh, India disrupted worship services at two churches on Feb. 7, beat congregation members and pressured police to arrest more than 20 Christians on suspicion of forcible conversion, sources said.
Under a new anti-conversion ordinance that came into effect in the state on Jan. 9, Udaigarh police in Alirajpur District charged one of the two churches’ pastors with forcible conversion.
Pastor Malsingh Meda and 21 members of his church in Bhamdakhapar village were arrested, as was pastor Dilipsingh Vasunia, who leads a church in Jambukheda village. Pastor Meda was released at 1 a.m. on Feb. 8, and Pastor Vasunia was charged with forcible conversion and obtained bail on Feb.10.
Though police reached both villages before the Hindu extremist attacks on the worship services, they did nothing to stop the damage to the church buildings or the assaults on the Christians, eyewitnesses told Morning Star News.
“I was conducting the service when one of them [Hindu extremists], carrying a gun, came and slapped me twice on my face,” Pastor Meda told Morning Star News. “Then another man carrying a gun approached me and slapped me, then three others carrying wooden sticks came one after another and hit me with the sticks.”
Before attacking his church, the mob belonging to the hindu extremist Hindu Yuva Janjati Sangathan (Hindu Youth Tribe Organization, HYJS) had disrupted the Sunday service of Pastor Vasunia’s congregation. Two Hindu extremists were brandishing guns as the mob questioned worshippers and searched their belongings, video on social media shows.
The mob is seen questioning women, checking their Bibles and rummaging through their bags. Police follow the assailants but do not stop them. Officers later detained Pastor Vasunia and his nephew, Bhajan Vasunia, and took them to the Udaigarh police station on suspicion of forcible conversion, said Abhishek Ninama, a relative of the pastor.
The same mob then left for Bhamdakhapar village, where they assaulted Pastor Meda and other male worshippers while two policemen stood idle outside the church building.
“My son was stopped by two policemen from entering the church, and he witnessed that a group of Hindu extremists pushed the two policemen aside and made their way into the church carrying guns,” Pastor Meda said.
Congregation women ran to a room and locked themselves inside to escape assault, he said. Among male church members beaten with wooden sticks was a senior citizen, the pastor said.
The mob also desecrated a cross and Bible, confiscated Christian literature and damaged church property and parked vehicles, Pastor Meda said. The Hindu mob divided into groups.
“One group entered the church and, locking the door from inside, they began to assault me and all the male members, while another group damaged all the vehicles parked outside the church,” he said. “Yet another group climbed the roof and broke the roof with heavy stones. They then began to attack us with stones by throwing them from the roof. They aimed a huge stone at my wife, and she barely escaped it.”
Pastor Meda called a police hotline, and the attackers fled – to the Udaigarh police station, where they were waiting when officers brought Pastor Meda and 21 church members for interrogation, he said. HYJS members had filed a complaint of forcible conversion.
Six children, some as young as a few months old, accompanied their mothers at the police station, where church members waited for hours before they were released.
“They were asked if they were allured to attend church, and what kind of benefits they have been offered to become Christians,” Pastor Meda said. “Women boldly testified how their husbands had been drunkards, how some had had prolonged sickness, how some had been possessed by a demon, and how they had been cured by coming to church and by putting their faith in Jesus.”
Officer P.S. Damor told Morning Star News that police had made the arrests based on a complaint from a relative of a person alleged to have been converted by allurement.
Nine men including Pastor Meda were detained, with eight of them released that evening and the pastor later that night at 1 a.m.
Pastor Vasunia’s nephew was also let go, while officers put him and Pastor Meda in the same cell.
Hindu Extremist Agitation
Pastor Meda said Hindu extremists surrounded the police station clamoring for charges against the Christians well past 11 p.m.
“We could not see them, but we could hear a huge mob shouting slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram [Hail lord Ram]’ and a lot of movement of the mob around the police station,” he said.
A local Christian who requested anonymity told Morning Star News that he visited the police station that night to enquire about the pastors.
“Around 8 in the evening, about 300 men belonging to the Hindu organizations had surrounded the police station. They were shouting slogans demanding them to be booked under stringent laws,” said the source, who fled the area fearful of attack by the agitated mob.
HYJS District President Dilip Chauhan told media that for several months the organization has gone to every police station in Alirajpur District with “proofs” to get Christian pastors arrested.
“We go to the church and catch hold of the pastor and bring him to the police station to be arrested,” Chauhan reportedly said on Feb. 7. “HYJS demands that an FIR [First Information Report] be registered against Pastor Dilip Vasunia under the new anti-conversion ordinance 2020 of forceful conversion, and if this does not happen, we will stage a protest.”
Police later that day charged Pastor Vasunia under the new anti-conversion ordinance.
Office Damor confirmed the charge.
“We have booked Dilipsingh Vasunia under the new anti-conversion ordinance 2020 on charges of forcefully converting the complainant’s relative,” Damor told Morning Star News. “We have done our investigation and found the allegation to be true.”
Since the new ordinance, which replaced the state’s previous anti-conversion law of 1968, came into force on Jan. 9, official reports show 28 people have been booked, according to the Hindustan Times. More than half are Christians, according to police records.
State Home Department records show that eight cases have been registered in eight districts of Madhya Pradesh in one month; four cases are said to be against nine Muslims, and four against 19 Christians for allegedly luring and coercing people to change their faith through worship meetings, police reports showed.
The Supreme Court on Feb. 12 refused to entertain a plea by attorney Vishal Thakre challenging the validity of the “Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance,” sending it back to the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, said the new anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh states are far more severe than laws passed earlier in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh states, which in turn were far more severe than prior laws passed in Odisha (then Orissa) and Madhya Pradesh in the 1960s.
“These laws encourage vigilantism by extremists and increase impunity,” Lal told Morning Star News. “They have put religious minorities in a dangerous situation in which it has become very easy for just about anyone to target them just by leveling the convenient allegation of forcible conversion, because these ordinances make every conversion suspect and place the burden of proof on the accused rather than the accuser.”
The Indian constitution allows for freedom of religion, but laws and ordinances ironically entitled “Freedom of Religion” that actually curtail religious freedom are in force in eight states: Odisha (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968 and 2020), Chhattisgarh (2000 and 2006), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006 and 2019), Jharkhand (2017), Uttarakhand (2018) and Uttar Pradesh (2020).
Although a similar law was passed in Arunachal Pradesh in 1978, implementary rules have not yet been formed. Tamil Nadu passed a law in 2002 but later repealed it. Rajasthan passed a similar law in 2006, but the state governor has not signed it.
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, as it was in 2020. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.