Sunday, 26 January 2014

Joy and tears in Bangalore

Shortly before Christmas I visited Bangalore in south India with a small party from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). 

In case you don’t know, CSW is a human rights charity which seeks to promote religious freedom for all (primarily but not only Christians) who suffer violations of that right. Our party consisted of five people - two CSW staff plus three volunteers (including me) as observers and support people. Our week was in essence a fact-finding mission in a part of India, Karnataka state, where Christians are having a particularly hard time at the hands of extremist Hindu nationalists. 

In due course the visit will be written up as part of a larger report which will go to, among others, the British Parliament, the European Union, the United Nations, and Capitol Hill in Washington. In all probability nothing will change very quickly, but the prayer is that the long slow battle against human rights abuses will receive a significant boost.

Our week was taken up largely with interviews with various key people. Broadly speaking these fell into two groups. 

First, there were people working in government, education or the law - in other words, influential people who are seeking to make a difference. Discrimination on the grounds of religion or caste is, strictly speaking, illegal in India, but communal and sectarian tensions have a long history in South Asia (they were in fact encouraged and manipulated by the colonial powers) so that what we are seeing now is the fruit of many years. 

Widespread corruption means that many people are suffering unjust and cruel treatment. The legal people we spoke to were aiming, among other things, to make vulnerable groups - Dalits, Christians, Muslims - more aware of the various options open to them when subjected to ill-treatment: sadly, people often feel there is nothing that can be done and simply accept injustice.

The second group we met were Christians who had actually been victims of persecution. The motto of CSW is to be “a voice for the voiceless”, and these were precisely the kind of people it is aiming to help. Several people had come to Bangalore on a six or eight hour round trip to meet us, and some of the stories they told us were simply pitiful. One couple had been hounded out of their village and forced to live in a make-shift shelter in some kind of camp. Just before they came to see us their shelter had been demolished by local authorities - in pouring rain - and they were left “with nothing under the sky”. 

Stories of beatings, disruption of Christian meetings, and denial of basic rights were common. One pastor we met does his pastoral visiting by motor-bike, and it is routinely tampered with while he is with someone. This may seem pretty low-key opposition, but pushing a motor-bike home - for perhaps five or so miles - is no joke. 

The extremists involved in this kind of activity have a deep-seated hatred of Christianity and Islam, seeing them as a threat to their culture and way of life. Sadly, it must be acknowledged that some Christian ministries (very possibly from abroad) have been involved in aggressive and insensitive forms of evangelism, rendering this attitude, if not justifiable, at least understandable. It is important to say that CSW is scrupulous in not engaging in evangelistic activity; its only concern is for human rights. 

Our news broadcasts here in Britain remind us daily that extremist mindsets are dangerous right across the world and right across the religious and political spectrum. In India extremist Hindu nationalism represents in essence a calculated political position, rather than a strictly religious one, which manipulates religious identities for the sake of its own self-propagation. These attitudes have infiltrated deeply into high-up political circles and also into the police. If Christians do complain of ill-treatment they are likely to be told by the police to “stop worshipping this Jesus, then”. If they bring charges against their attackers they are likely to be hit with counter-charges - all completely fabricated - suggesting that they are the ones acting outside the law. 

Some of the stories were indeed heart-rending. And yet the church is growing in India, especially among the Dalits (the so-called “Untouchables”). The love of Jesus for all men and women equally is truly good news for these people. Please pray for them: their plight is terrible, yet their faith is radiant. At the beginning of one meeting about a dozen of them nearly raised the roof with their singing of a hymn to Jesus. I personally am not easily moved to tears, but I found it hard for those few minutes. Our Sunday worship was at a church founded by Operation Mobilisation, and it was massively heartening to see these people worshipping God and displaying great joy. 

Pray for India. Pray for the political situation: important elections are due in the next few months, and extremist Hindu nationalists could come to power. But most of all pray for your brothers and sisters in Jesus who are suffering for him on a daily basis. 

And pray that the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other agencies will be effective in bringing justice and hope. 

To find out more about CSW go to the blog archive and click on 2013, October (1). CSW is always happy to arrange a speaker for your church or group.

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