Violence against Christians in India: Washington Post reports undercovered story

You just might stop complaining about the Christmas rush after reading a horrendous Washington Post story about persecution of Christians in India.

The story goes in depth, but it also carries a fierce, urgent note. I don’t usually paste at length, but this passage is worth it:

ALIGARH, India The trouble started a few months ago, when Hindu nationalists swept into a small village where several families had converted to Christianity more than a decade earlier. They held a fire purification ceremony with the villagers, tore a cross off the local church and put up a poster of the god Shiva. The space was now a temple, they declared.
Then right-wing Hindu groups announced a Christmas Day ceremony where they planned to welcome hundreds of Christians and Muslims back to Hinduism. A fundraising flier solicited donations for volunteers to do the conversions — about $3,200 for each Christian and about $8,000 for each Muslim.
After a nationwide furor, organizers postponed the ceremony on Tuesday. But one of them, Rajeshwar Singh Solanki, said in an interview Thursday they will demonstrate against any church baptisms performed on the holiday. He said his group’s ultimate aim is to ensure that Islam and Christianity “cease to exist” in India.
Christians in Aligarh say they are afraid of what might happen on their holiest of days.
“We just want security from the government, particularly on Christmas,” said Ajay Joseph, 39, a lab technician.

The sweeping article musters three reporters who quote seven sources, including church and political leaders. It also draws from Indian outlets, Scroll and New Delhi Television. And it gets background from three articles in the Post's own deep database.

The story also gives some numbers. It notes, for instance, that Christians comprise just a little more than 2 percent of India's 1.2 billion people. It doesn't have to drop the other shoe: "Militants are getting upset over a group this small?"

A few incidents against Muslims are cited, like an apparent bribe of food ration cards for anyone who converted to Hinduism. But the main focus here is the string of attacks on Christians, perhaps because of the approaching Christmas holiday.

The reporters scored in landing a source like John Dayal, a government official and former president of the All India Catholic Union. Here is his frighteningly concise summary:

Dayal said that around 150 hate crimes are generally perpetrated against Christians each year throughout India and that this year they have documented pastors and churchgoers being beaten, prayer meetings broken up and churches vandalized. A Catholic Church in New Delhi was burned earlier this month, sparking protests and an appeal from the archbishop for protection. That case is still under investigation.

The story gives examples of the hate, both low and high. In one incident, carolers were beaten by people from a wedding party. In another, the Indian parliament this month discussed whether to require children to attend school on Dec. 25.  "The country’s foreign minister also called for naming the sacred Hindu text Bhagavad Gita the 'national scripture,' " the Post reports.

Especially impressive is the use of opponents and outside sources as well as advocates. A government official blames "political opponents" with raising trouble over religion to sabotage economic initiatives. And a militant says his group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, gets involved only when missionaries are "crossing the limits." (The newspaper should have asked him, "What limits?", though.)

The Post doesn't go far into reasons for the violence. It does say that some Hindus resent Christian missionary work, and that the militants among them see their chance for reprisals under the Modi government. It also mentions in passing the long-standing accusation of "forced or coerced conversions," without explaining what the militants mean by that -- or the fact that Christians deny they're forcing anyone.

Among the few blemishes in this fine report is the careless use of "conservative," apparently trying to stuff the situation into American categories. Thus, Christians and Muslims worry over the new "conservative government" led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. The New York Times tried the same thing with the appointment of a female Anglican bishop.

I was also surprised that the report didn't mention past waves of persecution, such as those in 1998, 1999 and 2008. I'm amazed that the sources, like John Dayal, didn't bring up the past injustices; he was cited in one of the above-linked stories.

And given that Modi is mentioned eight times, the Post story should have quoted him as well. Perhaps the quote from the general secretary of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is meant to represent him. But if the Post sought a comment from Modi and was denied, it should have said so.

Finally, I would have expected more kinds of Christians represented in the story than Catholic and Methodist. A report by Vatican Radio on Saturday named indigenous non-Catholic groups, like the Mar Thoma and Malankara Orthodox churches.

But these are all comparative nitpicks in a story that serves readers well in its breadth and detail. In my opinion, the brutal treatment of Christians in India is still undercovered, although it has ground on for more than 15 years. As the world's largest democracy -- and helped write the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- the nation needs to be held to its own standards. Kudos to the Washington Post for its part in furthering that.

Video: New York-based NTDTV reports on violence against Christians in India in 2008.

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