HYDERABAD, India (Morning Star News) – Three church buildings were set ablaze in six weeks in the state in southern India with the most attacks against Christians this year, sources said.
In one case, a church building in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state was burned to ashes after Christians refused to donate to an annual Hindu festival, they said. Members of Kingdom of God church were on their way home after an evening service on June 11 in Seekanankuppam, Kanchipuram District when their building was torched.
Pastor Arul Ruben was leading Bible study in Paramankeni, a village two and a half miles away, when he received a call about the fire.
“I received the call around 8 p.m., immediately asked the local pastor in Paramankeni to continue the service and rushed to Seekanankuppam,” Pastor Ruben, 37, said. “In 20 minutes I was able to reach it, but by that time, nothing was left – the fire had spread all over.”
Area Christians and neighbors tried to help Pastor Ruben douse the fire, but eventually firemen had to be called in to put it out. The pastor reported the attack the next morning at the Koovathur police station. Losses were estimated at approximately 100,000 rupees (US$1,450), he said.
Hindus in nearby villages became furious last year when no one from the 25 Christian families attending the church contributed to the annual Hindu festival held each May, and none contributed this year, Pastor Ruben said.
“[Last year] they humiliated the Christians for their non-participation and issued threats that the church would be destroyed if any Christian refused to contribute to the Hindu temple for the annual celebration of their deity,” he said. “Even this year, they visited the Christian families and asked them to donate for the celebration, but nobody contributed. When the festival is over, just when we were glad for the peace and harmony around us, we get to see the church turn to ashes.”
In addition, a Hindu cemetery is located about 300 meters away, said a church leader identified as Pastor Benjamin.
“Behind the church, the Hindu residents from nearby villages demanded that the church be closed down so a short-cut way can be paved for Hindus taking their deceased for cremation,” he said. “They even carried the dead via the church premises to the cemetery. They stopped after the area president intervened and warned them that it is not right, and that they must avoid entering the church premises and take the long route instead.”
Son of church founder Joshua Anthony, who established the fellowship in Seekanankuppam 23 years ago, Pastor Benjamin said the congregation has also seen “immense opposition” in the past five years because their building was located along a national highway, the East Coast Road (ECR), connecting the state capital, Chennai, and the former French colony of Puducherry.
“The area is in demand because of the ECR route, and random businessmen and real estate dealers constantly ask us to vacate,” the pastor said. “They told us the land can be of best advantage for commercial use.”
The site is also in demand as many tourists traveling to Pondicherry use the ECR route.
On top of these issues, a music academy in the same area wrongfully registered the church’s land in its name, he said.
“It was a long battle, and with the help of the area leaders we were able to get the piece of land registered in the church’s name,” he said.
Buildings in Flames
In Puducherry, Karaikal District, passers-by who saw the Bible Presbyterian Church building in flames on May 25 alerted neighbors and Pastor David Santosham.
“It has been nearly two months, and police could not find the culprits,” Pastor Santosham told Morning Star News. “I met the sub-inspector of police recently, and he told me that the investigation is underway. We are building the church again by the grace of God. Please pray for the construction work.”
A neighbor who is an active member of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has opposed the church’s services since 2012, he said.
“I submitted a petition to the National Commission for Minorities in 2012, but was attacked again in 2016 while repairing the roof,” Pastor Santosham said.
In Thiruvannamalai, an Advent Christian Church building on May 5 was set on fire by miscreants who ran away when neighbors spotted them, pastor Govrathnam Anbarasan told Morning Star News.
“That week, we conducted a VBS [Vacation Bible School] program for children in the church,” he said. “There was opposition from Hindu fundamentalists in Thiruvannamalai, but we continued the church services.”
Children rehearsing a skit to perform the next day had left for their homes by the time the arsonists jumped into the compound and set fire to the structure’s coconut-leaf roof, he said.
“As the roof was woven with coconut leaves, it is enough to ignite a small portion and the fire can spread all over easily in short time,” Pastor Anbarasan told Morning Star News. “I was visiting a believer’s family about three miles away to pray for their son.”
Police have taken no action since church leaders filed a First Information Report at Thiruvannamalai police station, he said.
“Since the past two months, we have been worshipping in open air under a tent,” he added. “A relief organization had come forward promising to help, but I received nothing from them. We don’t have enough means to rebuild the church, even if temporarily.”
Last year, a pastor’s home and church building was burned down after villagers belonging to Vanniyar, a caste-based Hindu-sect, put their faith in Christ. The church in Attipattu village, Cuddalore District, was strongly opposed by hard-line Hindus who label Christianity as a religion of lower castes.
Nehemiah Christie, director of legislations and regulations of the Synod of Pentecostal Churches in Tamil Nadu, told Morning Star News that violent trends against Christians are increasing as elections grow closer.
“On one side, we see the Hindu extremists barging inside the churches and attacking pastors, and the other side is what goes on behind us – in remote areas, they are burning away churches, especially those with roofs of tar sheet or coconut leaves, so fire can be spread speedily and easily, and before anybody can notice the perpetrators, they escape from the spot.”
Tamil Nadu was previously known for upholding secularism and unity, Christie said.
“The brotherhood Tamilians share irrespective of their caste or religion is today under threat, with political figures attempting to spread hatred against Christian and Muslim minorities for their political agenda,” he said. “In every case of arson, the police conveniently register it as fire accident due to short circuit, and they refuse to register the suspects’ names. But in reality, it is targeted violence to create communal disharmony between the Hindus and Christians.”
Hindu nationalists seek to create fear in Christians, especially new converts, that there can be church fires at anytime, so that especially the illiterate in remote areas won’t dare enter a church service, he added.
According to the Pew Research Center’s study on global restrictions on religion, India in 2016 had the highest level of social hostilities involving religion of 55 countries with high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion, under BJP’s rule.
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (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 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution.