Christians will long remember Palm Sunday 2017 as the day that bombers struck two Egyptian churches, killing at least 45 people. On Holy Saturday, Coptic Pope Tawadros II described the victims as martyrs who are now serving as “ambassadors in heaven” for persecuted Christians. But the bombings in Tanta and Alexandria were not the only attacks on Christians on Palm Sunday. Some 3,000 miles away in India, Hindu fundamentalists disrupted church services in five separate states.
These intrusions did not generate anywhere near the same coverage. Understandably so: they claimed no lives. But they did leave local Christians badly shaken. The five incidents – in Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu – followed a pattern. Hindu activists interrupted Sunday prayers and accused churchgoers of converting Hindus to Christianity. In Jahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a mob roughed up an Evangelical pastor before handing him over to police.
There are reports of officers accompanying the fundamentalists to churches. One Catholic activist suggests there is “direct collusion” between activists, police and local authorities in states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He believes these states are engaged in an “aggressive competition” to prove that they are the most zealous defenders of Hindutva, the ideology of “Hinduness”.
Western Christians might be tempted to dismiss these Palm Sunday incidents as the kind of low level harassment that, sadly, religious minorities suffer in much of the world. But local leaders say they indicate a wider decline in religious freedom in the world’s largest democracy. Last week Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi “to rein in these unruly forces and restore India’s image”.
Some doubt whether Modi is inclined to do so. The white-bearded leader came to power in 2014 with the support of Hindu nationalists. He is a member not only of the BJP, but also of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu paramilitary group. Last month he backed the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, a volatile Hindu priest, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. In 2005, Adityanath reportedly led a “purification drive” which involved the conversion of hundreds of Christians to Hinduism.
Modi is seeking to perform a perilous balancing act: promoting growth while satisfying the cultural demands of his hardline Hindu base. Christians fear that if the BJP fails to fulfil its economic promises then it may seek to stoke inter-religious tensions to maintain its grip on power.
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