Where Religions of Peace Aren’t

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on December 9, 2008

(by Jill Nelson, WorldMag.com) – News of widespread violence against Christians in India’s Orissa state, like November’s terrorist attack in Mumbai, shocked believers across the world: Dozens-perhaps hundreds-in Orissa have been slaughtered or burned to death for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism; 50,000 refugees have fled to the forests; hundreds of churches and homes have been destroyed; and the government has been relatively silent in what some are calling a pogrom against Christians in the predominantly Hindu country.

Almost three months after the deadly attacks began, news of death and destruction has diminished, creating the impression that the troubles have disappeared. Not so, say Christian leaders on the frontlines. Most of Orissa’s Christian population has fled and threats remain large for those tempted to return: Convert to Hinduism or die. Some relief efforts have been restricted and the road to reconciliation is long and complicated. “We never thought such a thing could occur in India,” a retired pastor from Mumbai told WORLD. “We knew there was a Hindu fundamentalist group that is getting increasingly uneasy because of the expanding church, but we thought that this is just part of life. We never expected such a backlash.”

Hinduism is often portrayed as a religion of nonviolence and universal harmony. Vishal Mangalwadi, a social reformer and author who has been briefly jailed several times for evangelism and social activism in India, says Hinduism has nothing to do with nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader who led India to independence through nonviolent civil disobedience, is credited for trying to merge the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, into modern-day Hinduism. But its origin is found in Jainism, the religion of Gandhi’s youth. “The present violence against Christians and a lot of the recurring violence against Muslims is led by the same Hindu group which killed Gandhi. It never accepted Gandhi’s idea as a part of Hinduism,” Mangalwadi added.

Attacks against Christians have been on the rise since 2001 and are often led by Hindu extremist organizations linked to the Rashtriya Shwayamsevak Sangh (RSS) such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, its youth wing. Most of the attacks have taken place in states where the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political front for the RSS, is in power.

While Muslim extremists are often involved in international terrorism, Hindu radicals have a national focus and typically remain under the radar despite large-scale fundraising in the West. “Hindus are more clever when it comes to terrorism than their Muslim counterparts. Organizations like Bajrang Dal will not maintain a proper record of their membership details,” said Jerry Thomas, a founding member of an Indian apologetics network called Sakshi. His organization’s website lists several groups they claim use funds-many collected in the West under the guise of disaster relief-to persecute Christians.

The opposing principles of violence and nonviolence have struggled to coexist in Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most sacred scriptures, was supposedly revealed on a battlefield. While Hindus claim that their faith upholds nonviolence as the ultimate ideal, exceptions are made. One exception was made on Dec. 6, 1992, when thousands of Hindu militants charged through police lines and demolished the Babri mosque, claiming that the site was the birthplace of Rama, one of the incarnations of the Hindu god. Thousands perished in the struggle.

A central premise of Hindu extremists is the concept of Hindutva: the belief that India is a sacred land that must be kept pure and free from outside influence. “While Hitler tried to create a superhuman race, Hindu terrorists are trying to preserve the Brahminical caste structure which they think is the best and ‘scientific’ of all social structures,” Thomas said.

Further complicating Hindu-Christian relations in India are the growing ranks of Maoists, recently empowered after winning elections in Nepal. Like the Christians, the Maoists have championed the cause of the poor and take issue with the agenda of Hindu militants. But their methods differ: Maoists are communists who approve of using force and have claimed responsibility for murdering Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader who had oppressed Christians in Orissa. His murder on Aug. 23 launched the recent wave of attacks against Christians, who were blamed for his death.

Part of the misguided finger-pointing stems from what Mangalwadi calls a growing Christian-Maoist nexus. During the December-January violence in Orissa, a number of Christian youth were lured into the Maoist ranks by the promise of guns. There could be more violence in the coming months as suspicions loom over Maoist intentions and a suspected link to local believers.

The former pastor from Mumbai, who has asked to remain unnamed due to his involvement in relief work in Orissa, says many families are split between Christians and Maoists. While some Christians have died for their faith, some of the people arrested for the death of Saraswati have Christian names. “Those hot-headed youth who are unable to take the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and who are impatient say, ‘We will join the Maoists because the oppression is horrible,'” the pastor said.

Mangalwadi says Christians in India need to define their relationship with Maoists who have been supporting evangelicals there for some time. Frontline evangelists, for example, are escorted into the jungle to show the Jesus film. Halfway through the film, it is stopped for a lecture on Maoism and is then resumed.

But both Mangalwadi and the pastor from Mumbai caution against isolating the Maoists: “We don’t want to say that we are anti-Maoist, but that we are anti-violence. We want to embrace the Maoists and say there is a better way of doing things,” the pastor said, adding that there is a growing intellectual leaning of Marxists toward Christ.

Close to 15,000 Orissans have fled to other states and are living with friends and relatives. Tens of thousands remain in refugee camps and are beginning the arduous process of registering their losses. Many of those who have lost family members have not been able to produce a body, making paperwork difficult. Undoubtedly, many will need counseling as reports of rapes and horrific stories of torture and murder are brought to light.

Kandhmal, the district hardest hit, remains limited to Christian relief agencies. Much of the relief work is taking place in refugee camps outside this area where Mangalwadi says large amounts of money have been directed for rebuilding homes, distributing food, and providing legal help.

The retired pastor from Mumbai is part of a team that will go into Orissa and help oversee solutions in the form of relief and reconciliation. He believes Christian groups should focus on winning over the Maoists, moving toward reconciliation without compromising the preaching of the gospel and promoting development.

But Mangalwadi cautions that the future may bring more bloodshed if the church doesn’t take seriously the call to reconcile, noting suspicions among Hindus that Christians are paying Maoists to kill Hindu leaders. “We need the language of reconciliation that says, ‘Yes, you killed 50 of us, but we did kill five of you and we are sorry about our people who killed five of you.'” He says the next round of violence could come as early as Christmas and may be much worse. Maoists gunned down an RSS activist on Nov. 5, causing widespread fear of renewed violence.

Hindu fundamentalists have blamed Christianity’s growing strength in India on forced conversions and bribery. Even Gandhi suspected Christians of preying upon the Dalits, the lowest caste, claiming that they lacked the intelligence to fully comprehend theological matters. But the perseverance of Orissa’s believers-many of whom are Dalits-tells a different story.

“There are 50,000 people who are living in the jungles rather than going back and becoming Hindus. It goes to show that those Christians were real Christians,” the retired pastor from Mumbai said. “They were not bribed, they were not bought by any missionaries. They are Christians and they are able to stand up for their faith. That is something that really speaks to us.”

Copyright ©2008 WORLD Magazine, December 13, 2008.  Reprinted here December 9th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.  


Orissa is the ninth (of 28) largest state by area and the eleventh largest by population in India. It is located on the east coast of India, by the Bay of Bengal.

The population of India is made up of the following religious groups:
Hindu 80.5%, Muslim 13.4%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.9%, other 1.8%, unspecified 0.1% (2001 census)