Thousands protest harassment of Christians in India

Protesters form 20-kilometer human chain to fight for their rights in Jharkhand state
Thousands protest harassment of Christians in India

People form a human chain in India's Jharkhand state on July 15 to protest state-sponsored harassment of Christians. (Photo provided)

About 10,000 Christians in eastern India's Jharkhand state formed a 20-kilometer human chain to protest what they call the state-sponsored harassment of Christians and a hate campaign against them.

The mostly indigenous Christians say their government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has developed policies to take away their rights and land.

Braving heavy rain on July 15, women, children and elderly from different churches joined the human chain after their Sunday services.

Protests were held in Ranchi, Gumla, Simdega, Bokaro, Jemshedpur and Khunty by people shouting slogans against state government moves.

"Catholic nuns, priests, pastors are attacked and jailed. Their institutions are searched. They are accused of every wrong that takes place in the state," said organizer Prabhakar Tirkey, president of ecumenical Christian forum Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh.

Christians are angry about the recent detention of a Missionaries of Charity nun on charges of child trafficking. The arrest came after a childless couple complained that a staff member at a home for unmarried mothers took money for providing a baby but failed to keep her promise.

Jesuit Father Alphonse Aind, principal of a school in a remote village, was arrested and remanded on June 22 on charges of abetting rape after unidentified people kidnapped five social activists who staged a street play in his school that allegedly criticized tribal demands for autonomy.

Christian leaders say the arrests are part of a state-sponsored hate campaign to project Christians and missioners as law breakers and tarnish their institutions.

"It is part of an organized to plan to keep ordinary people away from Christian institutions and missionaries," Tirkey said. 

Ever since the BJP came to power in Jharkhand in 2014, Hindu groups have been accusing Christians of engaging in illegal conversions of socially poor Dalit and indigenous people, he said.

A year ago, the state enacted a law that makes changing religion a crime punishable with jail if done without informing the government, Tirkey said.

Ankita Kujur, one of the protesters, told ucanews.com that the government has been working to divide indigenous people as Christians and non-Christians to isolate and weaken the indigenous community. The strategy aims to attract the votes of non-Christians and to damage the united stand for tribal rights, she said.

The government claims that all non-Christian indigenous people are Hindus. However, most non-Christian indigenous people follow their traditional Sarna religion and want the government to accept it among official religions.

The government has tried to amend two state laws by removing clauses to protect the land rights of indigenous people, whose leaders suspect the move aimed to transfer their land to mining companies.

It also faced opposition for amending a five-year-old federal law that aims to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people when the government acquires their land for development.

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"The government comes with one move or another against Christians and tribal people. Unless this is opposed, it will gradually perish the tribal community," Kujur said.

Ajay Tirkey, president of the Central Sarna Committee, said it has been demanding official status for the Sarna religion "so that we can have independent identity."

The Sarna people are now counted as Hindus in the official census.

Jharkhand has about 32 million people, of whom one million are Christians, almost all of them tribal people. 

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