Updated: September 27, 2021 11:49 AM GMT
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists shout slogans during a protest on Jan. 5 against the demolition of an ancient Hindu Lord Hanuman temple by the Delhi government. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP)
Right-wing Hindu activists have stepped up pressure on authorities in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state as the Sept. 26 deadline they set for the government to demolish Christian churches passed without action.
More than 1,000 activists of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) protested in front of the headquarters of tribal-dominated Jhabua district demanding action from the government.
The VHP had set Sept. 26 as the deadline for the administration to demolish all Christian churches on tribal land, alleging them to be illegal structures.
The administration, which works under the government run-by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ignored the deadline.
The government also provided police security for churches and refused VHP activists permission to protest on public roads.
“It is true the administration provided security for our churches after VHP threatened to demolish them,” said Father Rocky Shah, public relations officer of Jhabua Catholic Diocese.
The official also promised to study allegations of religious conversion against Christian leaders in the district
At least 300 police personnel were deployed near the Catholic cathedral in the district as a precaution, Father Shah told UCA News on Sept. 27.
The priest said all Catholic churches are “legally built but still we are being unnecessarily harassed. Our people are scared from the open threat from the Hindu activists against us and our churches,” he said.
A senior district official told the protesters that the administration would study the concerns of VHP activists.
The official also asked VHP leader Premsingh Azad to provide details of the illegal churches and promised to act against them amid thunderous applause from his supporters.
The official also promised to study allegations of religious conversion against Christian leaders in the district.
Azad later claimed he had submitted a list of 56 names of Christian leaders including priests and pastors for promoting illegal religious conversion and sought action against them under the state’s newly enacted anti-conversion law.
The state government recently amended its four-decades-old anti-conversion law to include stringent provisions such as a 10-year jail term to those converting people through allurement, force or fraudulent means.
The administration has already started summoning pastors and priests asking them to provide details of their ordination as Christian priests or pastors, and if they were converted through force, church leaders said.
Last week the diocese received a notice for Father Peter Kujur, who died from Covid-19 in April, to verify if he became Christian by force, Father Shah said.
“I have already communicated to the administration that he is dead,” the priest said. “It is possible others also might get such notices.”
Auxiliary Bishop Paul Muniya of the Protestant Shalom Church told UCA News that all “his 56 pastors serving in the district have so far got such summons.”
We have not violated the rules, but still we are targeted for our faith
He said he appeared before officials and presented his documents on Sept. 22 following a summons. “But again I am asked to appear” before them on Oct. 6 with a domicile certificate, caste certificate, residential proof and Aadhar, a 10-digit identity document, Bishop Muniya told UCA News on Sept. 27.
“We are being harassed for working for the welfare of poor people in the district,” he lamented.
“Prayer halls in the houses of pastors are projected as illegal church structures and there are calls for their demolition. We have not violated the rules, but still we are targeted for our faith.”
The prelate is among Christian leaders who sought help from Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan after VHP threatened to demolish churches.
Bishop Muniya also wanted the state government to find a permanent solution to such threats from right-wing Hindu activists.
Father Shah echoed the same feeling. “Right now we are safe, but we need lasting peace where everyone should live happily without vengeance against anyone.”
Jhabua district has a high percentage of Christians, who form some 4 percent of the district's 1 million people. Hindus comprise 93 percent and Muslims about 2 percent. Christians are a minuscule minority in the rest of Madhya Pradesh state, forming less than 1 percent of the population.
At national level, Christians form just 2.3 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people.
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