India and Pakistan: Lands of Martyrs

Attacks on Christians Continue

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NEW DELHI, India, MAY 7, 2005 ( Government officials in India and Pakistan are starting to react to the problem of Christians being attacked by hostile groups.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a speech in Parliament on the problem and sent a letter to the country’s states asking them to take measures to combat attacks against Christians, the Fides agency reported March 17. The move came after a meeting between the prime minister and a delegation of Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders.

During the encounter the Christian delegates complained of repeated episodes of violence against the faithful and religious-related institutions in various parts of the country. In January and February alone there 19 reported attacks against Christians, plus additional aggressions by Hindu fundamentalists in March, according to Fides.

The delegation gave the Indian leader a detailed list of episodes of anti-Christian violence and called on the government to adopt effective measures to stop the violence and protect minority groups. The Christian delegation also called on the government to invest more resources in the economic and social development of less fortunate citizens.

In Pakistan late last year Parliament passed a bill aimed at reducing the scope of its harsh blasphemy laws, according to a report published Oct. 28 by the Christian Post. The amendment to the law means that police officials will have to investigate blasphemy allegations to ensure they are well founded, before criminal charges can be filed.

According to the Christian Post, the law has been often used to settle personal vendettas. Under the law, only the testimony of a single Muslim was required to charge another person with blasphemy. The move to reform the blasphemy law came after the killings of several Christians earlier in the year, the Post said.

Another positive sign in Pakistan was reported Jan. 17 by Compass Direct, a Christian news service. For the first time, a Pakistani Christian was acquitted of blasphemy in a trial by the country’s lower courts. Anwer Masih was acquitted in Lahore in December by a Judicial Magistrate’s Court. During the previous two decades other Christians accused of blasphemy were eventually declared innocent, but only after appeals to higher courts. And many of them remained on death row in prison for years until the original verdicts were voided.

In a hearing last Dec. 17, Magistrate Mohammed Anwar Gondal ruled that the accusations against Masih were based only on hearsay evidence. Masih had been arrested Nov. 30, 2003, and charged with allegedly “disturbing someone’s religious feelings” and slandering a religious prophet.

Death threats

A neighbor of Masih’s, who had converted from Christianity to Islam, claimed that Masih had mocked his new beard and derided Islamic beliefs. After being held in jail for six months Masih was released on bail, until his eventual acquittal. His troubles might not be over, however. Extremists from a banned group have threatened to kill him for his alleged criticism of the prophet Mohammed, according to Compass Direct.

Other Christians in Pakistan continue to face difficulties too. Fides on May 2 reported that country’s Commission for Peace and Human Development called for an end of the persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians. The commission is a non-governmental organization comprising Muslims and Christians.

The appeal came after a young Protestant, Shahbaz Masish, was tortured and killed in an episode “which strongly resembled religious intolerance,” according to Fides. Co-workers told Masish that he should become a Muslim, and when he refused they threatened to kill him. Two of them subsequently carried out the threat.

Commission chairman Anthony Waseem said that uprooting intolerance from Pakistan society requires working at the grass-roots level in order to foment peace and reconciliation.

Another recent cause of concern is the decision by authorities to reintroduce religious identification in Pakistani passports, reported AsiaNews on April 28. Rights groups such as the Human Development Center (HDC) and the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance held a joint news conference April 25 to announce a protest campaign against the decision.

HDC director Father Bonnie Mendes said that adding the category of religious identification to passports would be a step in the direction of social sectarianism. “Pakistan has already suffered from sectarianism,” he said, “and the government should not open the door to this social phenomenon.”

Hindu extremists

And, in spite of the appeal by the prime minister, attacks against Christians in India continue. According to a report Wednesday by Compass Direct, a crowd of nearly 500 Hindu villagers on May 1 attacked the pastor of a house church, his wife and other church members in the southern state of Karnataka. The aggressors also burned Bibles and other Christian literature.

The incident occurred while around 60 people were present at the Sunday service of King Jesus Church, which was meeting in the home of pastor Paulraj Raju in Mangalwarapete village. The church belongs to Harvest India, a Christian mission.

A month earlier, a mob of about 200 people had gathered in front of the pastor’s house, demanding that he close the church and leave the district. And in January, pastor Raju was beaten by a group of local people, as well as being arrested by police on charges of attempting conversions. The charges were later dropped.

The matter of conversions by Christians has been a touchy subject in India for some time. BBC reported Feb. 23 that the government in India’s western state of Rajasthan said it was going to introduce a law banning religious conversion. The move came after tensions between Hindus and a Christian mission holding its annual convention in Kota, 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the state capital, Jaipur. The state government is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The mission’s chief, M.A. Thomas, said Hindu activists had humiliated and assaulted some of the delegates. Hindu activists alleged that the Kota convention was being used for conversion to Christianity. The activists set up checkpoints on roads leading to the mission, stopping delegates who were arriving. According to BBC the state’s Christians amount to only 0.11% of the overall population.

A group of Christian bishops declared their opposition to the planned ban on conversions, Fides reported March 16. The joint statement was signed by Catholic Bishop Ignatius Menezes of Ajmer-Jaipur, Catholic Bishop Joseph Pathalil of Udaipur, and Church of North India Bishop Collin Theodore.

In the memorandum the bishops asked the government not to introduce the law because it would cause tension and insecurity among religious minorities, who fear that their activity could be labeled as “proselytizing” and liable to legal action.

Extremists continued their attacks against Christians in the state in March. A report March 18 by the Christian Post said that a group of Hindu militants attacked eight Protestant clergymen who had gathered to pray. The attack was serious enough for the clergy to require hospital treatment, and the aggressors also desecrated copies of the Bible.

The Christian Post added that the incident was just one of several attacks against Christians, both in Rajasthan and other states, during past weeks. Shedding one’s blood for Christ, in India and Pakistan, doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.

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