HYDERABAD, India, September 25, 2019 (Morning Star News) – Hindu extremists and police in eastern India this month ordered jailed Christians to stop gathering for worship, with the extremists threatening to bring a venomous snake to bite a pastor’s wife, sources said.
The house-church pastor, his family and other Christians had been arrested in Jharkhand state after the hardline Hindus disrupted their worship, beat the pastor and live-streamed hostile commentary on Facebook, with one passerby telling the Hindu extremist leader the Christians “should be sacrificed alive.”
Following the Sept. 8 attack on the house church in Domchanch village, Koderma District, police temporarily locked up and threatened pastor Manohar Prasad Varnwal – whose ability to walk is impaired by polio – along with his wife, children and some church members. Tensions have been high in Jharkhand state since the murder of a 23-year-old Christian mother in the suburbs of capital Ranchi last month.
“The Bajrang Dal, youth militant wing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad [Hindu extremist World Hindu Council] have become active in the state,” area pastor Rajesh Kumar Pandit told Morning Star News. “They are in talks with prominent Hindu leaders and police administration to stop Christian prayers.”
Church leaders have received warnings that scores of Bajrang Dal members met earlier this month to plan an attack on churches in Koderma District, Pastor Pandit said. As a result, some area churches refrained from gathering for worship last Sunday (Sept. 22); Pastor Pandit arranged for members of his house church to stand guard outside, he said.
Pastor Varnwal said 40 to 50 Bajrang Dal members attacked his house-church worship on Sept. 8 at about 9:30 a.m. Bajrang Dal Koderma District Convener Shyam Sundar Yadav led the intrusion into the house, where at least 40 Christians had gathered for worship, he said.
“At first only eight people barged inside and started shouting at us,” Pastor Varnwal said. “They abused us in filthy language and thrashed me. I didn’t say a word.”
His wife, Savita Devi, tried to stop them, but they pushed her away, he said. Soon the rest of the mob showed up and forced them to leave the house; at least five of them seized Devi’s hands, “snatched away her bangle, earrings and gold chain worth 22,000 rupees [US$310] and threatened us that we will be sacrificed alive,” Pastor Varnwal said.
They tore his Bible, seized a carton of Bibles, damaged a wooden bench and took away the offering box, he added.
Yadav, the district Bajrang Dal convenor, went live on Facebook to show the Christians walking along the road, driven from their home worship. A video of the live-stream widely circulated on the Internet shows Yadav pestering the women as he asks them why they came to the service, and when they tell him that they had attended for the first time and try to move on, he makes a start at them.
On the video, Yadav comments in Hindi that Christianity has destroyed the entire district, and he asks passersby why they let Christian worship continue in the area and what should be done with them. One answers, “They should be strictly punished,” and another says, “They should be sacrificed alive.”
Police from Domchanch police station arrived but, rather than arresting the assailants, they ordered the pastor, his family and a few church members to crowd into a police Jeep, Pastor Varnwal said. Yadav live-streamed the Christians getting into the vehicle.
The video shows Yadav pointing fingers at Pastor Varwal’s wife as he accuses her of having contacts with foreign Christians.
“You will beat us with chappals [slippers]?” he shouts. “Now bear the consequences.”
Devi denied that any of the women beat the assailants with slippers or struck them in any other way.
A few seconds later, Yadav is seen thanking police officers for arriving timely and requests that they continue cooperating with his Bajrang Dal group. The officer driving is shown appreciating Yadav, assuring him that he is just minutes away and will continue support by searching Christian homes.
In the video, Yadav goes inside the house.
“This is where people sit, and where Christians inflame Hindus,” he said. “This house was built by that Christian, Mantu [referring to Pastor Varnwal], with the exploited money received as a fund.”
Yadav alleges that the Christian women had bitten his colleagues. Another Bajrang Dal member walks inside the house and alerts Yadav that they should leave for the police station. Outside, he says that Bajrang Dal members are also meeting in Nawada and rallies viewers to meet there on Friday. He walks along the road where his fellow group members shout, “Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram [Hail Lord Ram].”
The live-stream ends with Yadav issuing a final statement.
“Our job is to make this area free of Christianity,” he said. “They are playing with our religion, they are making fools of innocent people. They are not letting them wear vermilion or do any puja[Hindu rituals]. They do not let them light incense sticks. They are luring people with their healing tricks. They make women accept other men as their husbands. They have put an end to brother-sister relation. We need to put an end to this.”
Police locked the pastor, his family and the other Christians inside the Domchanch police station, Pastor Varnwal told Morning Star News. When officers and Hindu extremists told them that they must not invite anyone for prayers, he replied that he didn’t invite anyone, but that he was praying with his family and if people come requesting prayer, they cannot close their doors to them, Pastor Varnwal told Morning Star News.
“Then they [Hindu extremists] threatened me that my wife, children and I will be hacked to death if we don’t stop prayer services,” Pastor Varnwal said. “They forced me to give it in writing that I will not preach the gospel and will never conduct prayers. It all happened in the presence of police.”
Domchanch Inspector of Police Vinodh Jadhav denied that the attack took place and that anyone forced the pastor to sign a document swearing to cease Christian activities.
“There was no attack,” Jadhav told Morning Star News. “We have not forced anyone to give anything in writing. No such thing happened.”
Jadhav said a police team had been sent to the Domchanch church on Sept. 8 after the station received information that Christians were “promoting Christianity” in the area, he said, though neither evangelism nor conversion are illegal in India.
“We conducted a preliminary enquiry and have not found any evidence of such religious promotions and had released the Christians on that day itself,” Jadhav told Morning Star News.
Pastor Varnwal’s wife, Devi, said in a later video interview by Pastor Pandit that police and Bajrang Dal members threatened her, with the Hindu extremists saying they would bring a venomous snake to bite her.
“Get out of here [the police station] and see – you will be killed,” they told her, she said on the video.
Pastor Pandit said that because he has been receiving abusive phone calls and threats on Facebook, he made and uploaded the video interviews of Pastor Varnwal and his wife on social media “because people who watched the live-stream only know one side of the story that Bajrang Dal leader Yadav was showing them.”
The Sept. 8 attack was an escalation of previous violence. On Sept. 1, Pastor Varnwal and another church member, Ashok Mehta, were returning to Domchanch from Punadi at about 8 p.m. on a scooter when a group of young men stopped them, he said.
“A batch of seven youths stopped our Scooty, nabbed us by the neck and took away the keys,” Pastor Varnwal said. “They accused us of kidnapping infants in the village and demanded us to show our AADHAR cards [government-issued citizen ID]. I told them that I was not carrying the ID card, and that I’m physically handicapped [by polio] and cannot even walk properly and have never been involved in such crimes.”
He told them that his house was nearby, and that he could show them his citizen card if they allowed him to get it, Pastor Varnwal said.
“But they beat us up and opened the trunk of the Scooty, and they found the Bibles in it,” he said. “They accused us of conversions and took us to Nawalsahi police station, where police also started beating us.”
Hindu extremists kept watch on their movements until the Sept. 8 attack during worship, he said.
“We filed a complaint online and have been waiting for the police to take action,” the father of three said. “We moved to my parents’ home in Koderma and have been staying here for two weeks now. The kids are also missing their school.”
The Bihar and Jharkhand states coordinator of legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Sandeep Tigga Oraon, said that on Sept. 11 he submitted a petition to police about the closure of the house church in Domchanch and two other places in Koderma District.
“While we were returning from the police station, a batch of motorcycle-borne Bajrang Dal and RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] activists in saffron clothes chased our vehicles,” Oraon told Morning Star News.
Forced Hindu Ritual
The next day, Sept. 12, Oraon received a phone call that a mob of about 200 Hindu extremists had gathered at the house of one of the complainants, Santosh Sharma, also a Christian.
Pastor Pandit told Morning Star News that the Hindu nationalists imposed a punishment on Sharma’s family.
“They ordered that the Christian family must partake in all Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] rituals for the next six months without fail,” Pastor Pandit said. “If they receive an order that they should be at the Hindu temple, they should be there.”
Following the online complaint by Pastor Varnwal about the Sept. 8 attack, a group of 15 pastors from Koderma District went to the office of the sub-divisional officer, Vijay Verma, to enquire about the case, Pastor Pandit said. Verma was upset by a Facebook post by Pastor Pandit’s brother about the pastors meeting with him, however, and he refused to say anything about the status of the complaint, Pastor Pandit said.
Asked about the status of online complaint, Inspector Jadhav said Verma is the one in charge of it.
“Whatever preliminary enquiry we had done, we had communicated our findings to him that there is no evidence of conversions or religious promotions against Varnwal,” Jadhav told Morning Star News. “He only would take up this matter, and he didn’t give any date for proceedings as yet.”
Pastor Pandit said police have been biased and not taken any action against the Hindu extremist assailants.
“They are organizing meetings in large scale, gathering youths from universities and the jobless youths from rural areas and are employing them in this business of safeguarding Hinduism by forcefully closing down Christian worship,” Pastor Pandit told Morning Star News.
The ADF’s Oraon said a huge unit of hundreds of RSS and Bajrang Dal members have been built up in Koderma District.
“They are aiming to free the district of Christianity,” Oraon said. “We are uniting pastors’ teams and youth ministry leaders and encouraging them to seek protection from police, to file cases against their attackers. We want to ensure that doors for gospel are open.”
ADF-India has verified 15 incidents of hostilities against Christians in India in the first two weeks of September, including four cases of violence against Christians in Jharkhand state.
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
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