//Commission confirms attacks on Indian Christians

Commission confirms attacks on Indian Christians

6/22/2006, UCANews (www.ucanews.com)

NEW DELHI, India (UCAN) – An investigation by the federal commission for religious minorities has confirmed that Christians are being targeted in states ruled by a Hindu-nationalist party.

Harcharan Singh Josh, leader of the two-member probe team, told UCA News June 20 they would submit their findings to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a couple of days.

The team visited the central Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, both ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian Peoples Party). The BJP is considered the political arm of right-wing Hindu groups, some of which are accused of targeting minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, and their institutions in these states.

The newly created federal ministry for religious minorities sent the team after taking note of recent reports of attacks on Christians in these states.

Josh, a Sikh, said the team spent six days in the two states in early June. It spoke to several non-governmental organization (NGO) and governmental officials and learned that the two states recorded 24 cases of harassment between January and June. Christian leaders in Madhya Pradesh say more than 50 cases were reported in that state alone during that period.

"We also met the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, and his explanation was that he was not aware of any such incidents," Josh said.

The team concluded that Hindu militants have harassed individuals as well as Christian families, including women and children. Josh described it as "unfortunate that all sorts of atrocities are being used against the Christians in these two states."

According to the team leader, Bajrang Dal (army of the strong and stout) and Dharma Sena (religious army) have carried out the attacks. The two groups are affiliates of the BJP and part of the larger right-wing family.

Josh said these groups beat up poor Christians when they pray in their homes and tell them to pray inside churches. "But when they go to church, the worshippers are also harassed there." Miscreants have forced their way into some churches and dragged out and beat up youths. "What's worse is that even the local police refuse to file" cases, he added.

"I do not hesitate to say that the BJP-led states have failed to protect the minorities," he stated.

Josh reiterated that freedom of religion is a fundamental right in the Indian Constitution. "As long as I am not abusing or accusing anybody, I can worship wherever and whenever I want, and the way I want. No one can take that right away from me," he asserted.

The team also probed rape cases in a village in Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh. Josh said the police have not arrested anyone so far, but "continue to harp that they are conducting inquiries."

Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) spokesperson Father Babu Joseph welcomed the commission's report. The Divine Word priest told UCA News June 21 that a "steady flow" of harassment complaints has come from the states ruled by the BJP or its allies. The church, he added, hopes the federal government will intervene to ensure people's "right to protection and property."

Meanwhile, a delegation of church leaders from the CBCI and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) met Minister for Minority Affairs A.R. Antulay in mid-June to inform him about the attacks. The NCCI is the national association of Protestant and Orthodox Churches, and their various groups and commissions.

The CBCI-NCCI delegation also demanded that the government initiate steps to provide constitutionally mandated benefits for dalit to Christians. The benefits for dalit, people of low-caste descent, have been denied to Christians on the basis that their religion does not recognize caste.

Father Joseph, who was in the delegation led by Catholic Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Agra, said the minister informed them about the minority commission probe and assured them the government would take "concrete steps."

Meanwhile, BJP leaders trashed the report and said the commission is executing a political agenda for the federal government. "Its actions are biased and politically motivated," BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters June 20.

Alleging that the commission is trying to "defame" the BJP-ruled states, Prasad said he has seen a pattern in the way the commission operates. "They are a little too eager to give their decisions ex parte (from one side)."

The ongoing efforts against the BJP-ruled states are linked to the anti-conversion bills passed by those states, Prasad claimed. He added that his party has "circumstantial evidence" showing that Christian missioners have used education and health care as ploys to convert Hindus to Christianity.

Ignoring protests from Christians and rights activists, several BJP-ruled states have enacted laws that entail serious punishment for any conversions deemed to have been forced or enticed through improper means.