Christians on edge in India’s Karnataka ruled by Modi’s BJP

Just days before Christmas, as Pastor Peter Benjamin prepared to address a prayer meeting and assessed the crowd in front of him at India’s tech hub of Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka, his heart skipped a beat. What if a mob suddenly walked in and started attacking everyone around, he thought to himself.

On December 23, his fears came true, albeit at a place around 160km (100 miles) away. A Hindu vigilante mob barged into a convent school in Karnataka’s Mandya district and disrupted a small Christmas celebration taking place. They shouted at the teachers and ordered them to stop the celebration, accusing them of “converting” Hindu children to Christianity.

On the same day, the Karnataka state assembly passed a new anti-conversion legislation, called the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021. The bill now awaits its passage in the state legislative council to become a law.

“There is immense fear among the Christians,” the pastor told Al Jazeera, referring to a spate of recent attacks against the community and their places of worship across Karnataka, a state governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Karnataka will be the 10th state in India to enact the so-called “Freedom of Religion” law. The legislation bars religious conversions, except when a person “reconverts to his immediate previous religion” – a clause that critics say is aimed at enabling India’s many Hindu supremacist groups to convert Muslims and Christians into Hindus.

Moreover, marriages conducted with the intention of conversion can be cancelled and those found guilty can be jailed for up to 10 years, according to the bill.

The ruling BJP claims the bill aims to stop “the illegal and large-scale conversion of Hindus to Christianity” – an allegation the party has yet to prove. Opposition parties and civil society groups have termed the proposed law “unconstitutional and undemocratic”.

At least 42 attacks this year: Reports

According to the 2011 census, Christians constitute about 2.3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people. The Hindu-majority country is home to Asia’s second largest number of Catholic Christians after the Philippines.

According to a fact-finding report by the United Christian Forum, Association for Protection of Civil Rights and United Against Hate civil society groups, India witnessed 305 attacks on the Christian community and their places of worship in the nine months until September 2021. Of the 305 incidents, 66 took place in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and 47 in Chhattisgarh.

The attacks intensified during the Christmas weekend when celebrations were disrupted by right-wing Hindu mobs. In a related development on Monday, India’s home ministry blocked foreign funding for Missionaries of Charity, a prominent charity founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mother Teresa in 1950.

In Karnataka, the community has faced increasing harassment for years, but this year saw a notable surge as at least 42 attacks on Christians and their religious places were documented. Three of those incidents – vandalising a church in Chikkaballapur, disrupting a naming ceremony in Hubli, and a mob forcibly entering a convent school in Mandya – were reported just hours before and after the passage of the anti-conversion bill.

Rights activists fear the actual numbers could be more as some cases of atrocities against the community, which forms 1.87 percent of Karnataka’s 64 million population, go unreported.

Community leaders and activists said the hate and violence against Christians were reminiscent of 2008, when at least 20 churches were vandalised by Hindu groups in Karnataka. Just as it does now, Karnataka had a BJP government in the state in 2008 as well.

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