A worrying trend is emerging in the world’s largest democracy.
Millions of Indians believe that the country is owned by Hindus and that all other religions, including Christianity and Islam, should be eradicated from society.
Human rights groups have accused India’s prime minister and government of supporting the extremist view. This has led to an escalation of violence against Christians often with the tacit approval of the central government.
At the age of 16, Paul was instructed to target Christians by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, an extremist Hindu paramilitary organisation.
Paul told CBN News: “Since I was a Hindu and part of the RSS organization, I became a devoted follower of their Hindu principles, and for this reason, killing Christians and priests became my goal.”
We have hidden Paul’s true identity for his own safety.
He says the RSS targets Christians because many Hindus in India abandon their faith to follow Jesus Christ. One of the group’s early founders said Christians were “anti-national” and “hostile” and should be treated as such.
RSS members often combine religious Hindu education with self-defense lessons and exercises.
The RSS, the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, combines religious education with “self-defense” exercises. (Photo by AP/Ajit Solanki)
Paul said, “They told us that Christianity does not belong in our country because they convert people, so we have to attack priests and demolish their churches so that our country remains a Hindu country.”
Hindus make up less than 80% of India’s population. The percentage of Muslims is 14%. Christianity is the third largest religion in India, with about 26 million adherents, or about 2.3% of the population, and their numbers are steadily increasing.
Determined to stem the growth, Paul thought he had his chance when a priest visited his lodge. Instead, the encounter changed his life when the priest shared the gospel with him.
Paul said, “It broke my heart when I heard that the blood of Jesus Christ was sacrificed for me, that Jesus Christ loved me, and gave His blood for my sins. I consecrated myself to Christ there and then.”
Paul now works as a traveling pastor in the backwaters of the Indian state of Karnataka, which is often referred to as a priests’ cemetery due to the severe persecution Christians face here.
His church was frequently attacked by RSS gangs. He was put in jail for proselytizing. However, he did not stop his service.
“Even in prison, I felt God’s love, and even though I was beaten, I was joyful and for this reason I am grateful to God.”
India, with a population of 1.4 billion, is the largest democracy in the world. However, human rights and religious freedom advocates say democracy has been in decline since the Hindu-led Bharatiya Janata Party government and its leader Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
“It really is the most progressive government in terms of restricting religious freedom outside of China,” said Dr. David Curry, commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
USCIRF has documented an unprecedented rise in violence against Christians under Modi’s rule. Most of the attacks are carried out by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindu extremist groups with ties to the prime minister’s political party.
Modi is accused of fanning the flames of Hindutva, an extremist ideology that teaches that only Hindus are true Indians and that all other religions, especially Christians and Muslims, are foreigners and should be removed from society.
“Their goal is to get Christianity out of India,” Carey told CBN News. “They consider India as sacred land for Hinduism and intend to enforce it.”
This includes issuing laws criminalizing religious conversion, particularly targeting Christian and Muslim minorities.
Last September, Karnataka became the tenth Indian state to pass the so-called anti-conversion law, which provides for 3 to 5 years in prison for anyone found guilty of forcibly converting people to Christianity.
“Joseph” (not his real name) is pastor in different towns and villages in Karnataka. We have taken similar precautions to protect his safety.
“Since the passage of the anti-conversion law, the authorities have been claiming that we are forcibly converting people,” Joseph told CBN News.
He says the RSS and other right-wing Hindu groups accuse him of converting Hindus by offering them money or other forms of bribes. He denies those accusations.
“When we first started serving 35 years ago, we didn’t have many problems,” Joseph recalls. “In those days we had religious freedom, but now we can’t even talk, we can’t even hand out a pamphlet, we can’t do anything. This is the situation we find ourselves in today. Everyone should run their churches with fear.”
Like Rev. Paul, Joseph also bore the wrath of Hindu extremists.
“They damaged my bike, set fire to Bibles and burned them, came to our church during the service and beat people,” Joseph said. “The police came to my house several times; I was taken to the police station and repeatedly accused of forcing people to convert. They had absolutely no evidence.”
So far, 12 of India’s 28 states, most of which are governed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, have passed laws regulating religious conversion.
These states also saw a rise in mob violence against Indian Christians.
Don Schenk heads an organization that has been sharing the gospel primarily through Christian radio broadcasts in India since 1978.
“It’s amazing how steadfast Christians are in their faith,” Schenk told CBN News.
His group has documented cases in which Hindu extremists discriminated against recent converts to Christianity.
The authorities, especially at the village level, do little or nothing to protect vulnerable believers.
“It is amazing how many people are prevented from going to the village well, not allowed to buy food at the market and endure anywhere from expulsion or ostracism from family and community to beating, killing, being beaten, killed and homeless.” “I destroyed their property,” Schenk said.
Although the Indian constitution gives Christians the right to proselytize, Schenk says the church in India must remain vigilant.
Schenck said, “Pray for the believers to remain steadfast in their faith, and pray for those who are persecuting that their hearts may be changed because we have seen it happen.” “The village priest threatened to smash a radio that someone was using to communicate, but when he made those threats he also came closer, listened to the radio and himself embraced Jesus Christ as his Savior.”