Universe Column for January 5th 2003
By David Alton
Epiphany is a time when we traditionally look east and a time when we celebrate the gifts that was laid at the infant Jesus’ feet. Perhaps on this Epiphany you can spare a thought for the suffering Christians who live in the near-east and Far-east and consider how you can use some of your gifts – such as the liberty to write a letter or the opportunity to help groups like Jubilee Campaign or Aid to The Church In Need. One country where Christians are in need of your help is India.
Catholics associate India with the apostle St. Thomas, who is credited with first bringing the faith to India; with the great missionary work of the Jesuit Saint, Francis Xavier; and with the Nobel Prize winner, Mother Theresa, for her love and devotion to the poor of Calcutta, work I have seen for myself. But we rarely associate India with persecution and suffering, but we should.
More than eight-two percent of India’s population are Hindus. Approximately twelve point five percent are Muslims, and just over two percent are members of India’s Christian minority. India employs a centuries old “caste system,” by which the rights and standard of living of its citizens are immutably determined at birth. India’s Christians, as well as its Muslims and Sikhs, have historically rejected the concept of caste, though many of them have descended from low caste Hindu families and continue to suffer the same social and economic limitations of low caste Hindus.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies came to power in India in 1998, it has launched an extremist form of Hindu nationalism called “Hindutva,” to purge the country of religious minorities. The BJP has succeeded in portraying Christianity as a suspect “foreign religion,” has passed legislation to effectively limit the rights and activities of Christians in some Indian States, and has even rewritten the nation’s history books. Christians are now slanderously mischaracterized to India’s more than one point two million schoolchildren. Upper caste Hindu groups like the BJP, fear that Christians may try to convert large numbers of lower caste Hindus. As this could destroy the rigid caste hierarchy, the BJP has targeted Christians with a vengeance.
Violent attacks against Christians have dramatically increased since the BJP’s ascension to power and the central government has done virtually nothing to stop the violence or to punish the perpetrators. In scores of violent incidents that began to escalate in the summer of 1998, priests and missionaries have been murdered, nuns have been raped and assaulted, churches have been bombed, and Christian converts and parishioners have been intimidated and harassed.
These are just a few examples:
– In the past two years at least thirty people were injured by a bomb explosion during a Christian religious meeting in Machlipatnam; several bombs exploded in or near Christian churches and institutions in the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
– In July 2000, a Jesuit priest was attacked and killed while riding home on his motorcycle in South Bihar.
– In August 2000, a Catholic Priest was beaten in Gandhinagar, Gujarat for distributing Christian literature.
– In September 2000, a Catholic Church in Karnataka was vandalized.
– In November 2000, in Surat district, Gujarat, a Hindu mob vandalized a small church.
– In December 2000, a Catholic Priest was attacked and killed in Manipur.
– Earlier in Kurpania, Bihar, a nun was raped and a convent looted. This is in addition to the September 1998 rape of six nuns in a Navapeda convent.
– Also in December 2000, a Christian school near Ranchi in Jharkand State was forced to close after a series of attacks, including assaults and a rape against teachers and staff.
– In January 2001, two Christian missionaries and their followers were beaten in a village near Udaipur, Rajasthan because they were watching a film on the life of Christ.
These examples illustrate the gravity of the situation – and I could mention many more. As we in the west celebrate this Epiphany let’s not forget the suffering of Christians in the east and make a resolution to use our gifts to act on their behalf.