In India, a Pattern of Attacks on Christians ; Yesterday, a Top Indian Official Acknowledged the Violence and Called for Action

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It began slowly in 1998. The attacks seemed isolated; no one had heard of such a thing. A church altar destroyed in one town. Nuns raped in another. Bibles burned.

But today, attacks against Christians in India appear part of a systematic, and often violent campaign against a mostly peaceful and relatively powerless minority - just 2 percent of India's population.

The violence began after the 1998 accession to power of an Indian government whose ideological underpinnings include anti-minority teachings, writings, and theories. The result is a new and uncharacteristic climate of fear among Christians - in a nation long fabled for its tolerance.

Today, despite a mixture of official denials and what often seem oblique and reluctant official censures, the incidents are occurring almost weekly - with Hindu radical groups one day gloating in the press over killings of Christian believers, and the next denying any part in them. Some 35 attacks against Christian targets are recorded by the Delhi-based United Christian Forum for Human Rights (UCFHR), between January and June.

In June, matters got worse. On June 7, a Catholic priest, George Kuzhikandam, was killed while sleeping in a church compound in a town called Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.

A week later, four churches in different parts of India were bombed. The morning after the bombings, a young evangelical preacher from Punjab, Ashish Prabash, who worked for India Campus Crusade for Christ, was found stabbed to death in his bed, and partially burned. A week later, church grave sites in Andhra Pradesh were desecrated. Three days ago the sanctuary of a church in Maharashtra was ransacked after threats severe enough to cause the terrified head priest to run away without filing a police report.

In areas where attacks take place, Christians describe a pervasive atmosphere of hate against them that is created by Hindu radical groups. They describe a neglect or even acquiescence to the crimes by local authorities. In the Mathura killing of Brother George, as he is known, the police brought in the church cook, Vijay Ekka, for "interrogation."

Mr. Ekka had slept near the slain priest and reported the murder. A week later, while in police custody, Ekka died. The police first said he committed suicide; but an autopsy indicates he was strangled. Theories about the custodial killing of Ekka have circulated - some blaming him for complicity, and others suggesting he knew who committed the murder. In any event, the cook is no longer around to tell his story, one local Christian points out.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, has largely adopted a position of silence and official perplexity. Until yesterday, the government had not explicitly acknowledged violence against Christians per se. Mr. Vajpayee's spokesman, Brijesh Mishra, said in Italy this week the attacks are "isolated" and "aberrational" and have no pattern. Often they are attributed to a law-and-order problem, a local issue like a land dispute or a love triangle.

But yesterday, in a meeting of state officials, Home Minister L.K. Advani said the Christian attacks need to be addressed, possibly in a meeting of state chief ministers in August. Mr. Advani suggested that terrorists and foreign agents from Pakistan were the chief culprits.

Still, a growing chorus of Indian voices say that the attacks have come after the rise of a Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi, whose affiliated organizations of radical foot soldiers now openly speak of "driving Christians from India."

"There is a definite pattern of attacks, and I think it is now clear there is a corollary between these attacks and the election of the BJP," states social activist C. Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, regarded as the father of India. "The silence is unfortunate. …