Indian Christians wary of backlash after American missionary death

NEW DELHI— In mid-November, a 27-year-old American approached an isolated tribe on a remote Indian island to tell them Jesus loves them. Not too surprisingly, since the Sentinelese people have historically resisted outsiders with violence, he was shot with an arrow and killed.

Since then, the mainstream and Christian media has dissected John Allen Chau’s story. He had planned this mission for years, even though entry into the area is illegal. The journal he left narrates his last days in poignant prayers. “God, I don’t want to die,” he wrote, “WHO WILL TAKE MY PLACE IF I DO?”

Some Christians herald him as a martyr and compare him to Jim Elliot, who died preaching to Amazon tribes. Others think he was delusional, criminal, a modern colonizer, or maybe just overzealous.

Many Christians in India share a different concern: how will Chau’s death impact local believers, especially in rural areas with already-growing resentments of Christians?

Christians in India make up 2.3 percent of the population and are facing a rise in targeted violence and government restrictions on their faith. This trend started a few years ago, but Chau’s death – which has caused debates in Indian media about Western imperialism and anger over Christians’ attempts to influence Indians’ religious identities – could ignite tensions further, according to Indian Christians familiar with missionary work.

One woman, a community health consultant with experience working with rural tribes, said she was uncomfortable comparing Chau to a martyr.

“The current government is already very vigilant with what is happening, with what Christians are doing,” she said. “A Western missionary can leave India at any time, but for local Christians there could be repercussions… It’s going to be far more difficult for local Christians.”

Rise of hate crimes

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 and the rise of the pro-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hate crimes against India’s religious minorities have risen sharply. Communal violence, which often involves one religious community against another, has risen by 28 percent from 2014-2017 according to the government’s own count.

Hindus, about 80 percent of the country’s population, account for the vast majority of attacks, usually against Muslims but including Christians (many of whom converted from the lowest Hindu castes), according to data from the news site, India Spend, which tracks reports of violence in English-language Indian media.

Some of the violence is due to cow vigilante groups, which aim to protect cows, often wandering Indian streets and seen as sacred by many Hindus. Many Indian states have laws banning cow slaughter, sale or transport. The Hindu vigilantes patrol streets and send Whatsapp (text messages) to their network, sometimes accusing an individual of killing or consuming a cow. Sometimes that causes a mob to form and respond with beating or even killing the accused.

A nationwide helpline for Christians has recorded 219 incidents of targeted violence and 192 mob attacks from January to October 2018, with a higher portion of attacks coming from areas governed by the BJP. According to the United Christian Forum (UCF) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which jointly run the helpline, 299 women and children were injured.

Indian police commonly refuse to register a complaint and instead arrest the Christians and pastors on charges like inciting a mob. Of the 219 incidents, only 12 have registered an investigation so far to try to hold the perpetrators accountable, according to UCF.

In one recent incident in the BJP-led state of Uttar Pradesh, more than 20 Hindu extremists showed up to a Christian meeting in a hotel with hockey sticks and baseball bats shouting victory to Lord Ram, then beat those present and dragged women by their hair and tore their clothes, the Indian Express reported. The police arrested the seven Christian pastors on charges of promoting enmity between the two groups.

Tighter scrutiny of Christian activities

Last month in the scenic Himalayan town of Mussoorie, a popular training ground and retreat haven for Christian missionaries, a Western woman was walking up a hillside with her husband when two men on a motorcycle cut them off.

“They said they were with the police and started asking us questions about why we were there and who we came to visit and if we were with any NGO [non-government organization or non-profit] up there and even asking us what visas we were on,” she said, wishing to remain anonymous to protect her family.

The men weren’t in uniform, she said. They later were found to be part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the grassroots coalition behind the BJP.

“They had been going around the hillside asking similar questions to anyone who looked foreign and even going to local house churches and interrogating foreigners, taking their photos,” she said.

While many Christians in India freely worship in clearly-marked churches, some gather in homes out of comfort and intimacy or to avoid inference from neighbors or the government.

“This is a way to intimidate anyone to leave the country or quieten up,” Dr. Michael Williams, president of the United Christian Forum (UCF), said. “Also, the government has now smartened up. As opposed to beating people with a stick, which they still do, the government is changing policies now.”

Since September, Indian police have stopped over 40 house churches from conducting prayer meetings under the pretext of maintaining peace, according to UCF and ADF. In some cases, the police threaten the pastors with arrest if they continue to hold services.

In a North Indian town near Dharamshala, an Indian pastor was interrogated by police the last week of November and his identity documents and passport taken away, a Christian businessman in the area said.

“They said that he’s doing conversion,” he said. “Someone, a neighbor, sent a complaint to the police office.”

India has strict “anti-conversion” laws that prohibit proselytizing one’s faith. A person who chooses to change his or her religion is supposed to inform the local government, which can often invite persecution if converting away from Hinduism.

Another local Christian in the area, who wants to remain anonymous and has decades of experience working and living with rural Indian tribes, said a handful more house churches have been shut in similar fashion over the past few months.

Although every Indian citizen has the right to assemble, the right to conduct a religious service is more limited, so in some cases, neighbors may have a right to file a complaint.

“Hindus are purposely gathering to exert some of these rights,” Williams said. “Some of these rights are stretching the law, reaching, but there is a toehold they have found.”

Uncertain future

At the end of November, Indian police told the media they began investigating the activities of two Americans, connected to missionary organizations, who met Chau in India before his trip to the island and may have helped him plan his mission.

There’s no official statement or evidence yet that Chau’s misadventure has prompted the Indian government to investigate more Christian organizations or that a perception of cultural imperialism will encourage Hindu extremists to attack Christians. But there’s plenty of speculation.

“In rural areas, in towns, they’ll see backlash that’s violent,” Akshay Rajkumar, a Delhi pastor affiliated with a network of Evangelical Christian churches in the US, said. “In cities, it becomes more like, ‘Oh, you Christians are like that.’ It’s like, No - I shouldn’t have to answer for what Americans are doing.”

Secular and Hindu liberals, normally more outspoken about minority rights of Muslims and Christians, have also condemned Chau’s efforts at evangelization on grounds of protecting an uncontacted tribe from modern diseases and allowing a people group to retain their culture and religion.

“If you come with so much enthusiasm and passion, but not put in a proper context of the situation and country, that will cause more problems not only to you but to the bigger Christian network in the country,” the community health worker said. “The warning here for Western missionaries coming to India is to be mindful first and foremost of the current government.”

Modi is scheduled to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Dec. 30-31.