As some of us have gone caroling, Christmas tree decorating or dropped by a candlelit church service lately, we’ve never envisaged a moment where it’d be dangerous to do such activities.
Halfway across the world, in India, they can be life-threatening.
We're not talking about the scrappy evangelical Protestant missionary groups that have continually given Hindu groups the fits. No, we're referring to Roman Catholics, who aren't known for creating religious tensions there.
Welcome to the India of 2017. This is a major story, on the global religion scene, but not one American readers see in headlines or on the evening news.
A recent piece in the New York Times provides a door into what is happening.
NEW DELHI -- Tehmina Yadav is a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man. The other night, she was hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.
In India, a country that is about 80 percent Hindu, Christmas is becoming big business. Airlines play Christmas music, online vendors sell holiday gift baskets, and one especially enterprising young man, Kabir Mishra, rents out a contingent of Hindus dressed as Santa Claus.
“I can provide as many Santas as you want,” he said.
Sitting next to her Christmas tree at home in Delhi, Ms. Yadav said that in India, there was nothing strange about non-Christians celebrating Christmas. Indians have always observed a dizzying number of festivals regardless of religious affiliation, and even though Christians represent only 2.3 percent of the population, Christmas is recognized as a government holiday.
A leftover of its colonial days, the article explains later. But now:
But as far-right Hindu groups have gained traction, India has changed. Christmas has now found itself caught in the cross hairs.
The authorities recently detained 32 carolers and the priests who went to help them. The wife of a prominent politician was excoriated online for endorsing a Christmas charity event, and earlier this month, a far-right Hindu group sent letters to schools warning them that celebrating Christmas would be done “at their own risk.” The group threatened unspecified consequences.
Anyone who’s been following the fate of religious minorities in India has known about this harassment for years. CBN said 2017 has been a “record-breaking” year in terms of persecution of Christians. USA Today wrote in May about Hindu vigilantes attacking Muslims. The government does little or nothing to stop the violence.
“We are afraid of Christmas this year,” A. C. Michael, the national coordinator of the United Christian Forum, an Indian advocacy group, said in a statement.
Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, some officials in his government pushed a short-lived campaign to change the official recognition of Christmas to “Good Governance Day.”
It is all part of a broader ideological battle that has produced countless acts of violence and harassment across India based on religious identity.
The story then shifts back to the carolers:
On Dec. 14, carolers affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church were assaulted by a mob in a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh. But instead of charging members of the mob with a crime, the police arrested the carolers under a law against inflaming religious sentiments.
Eight priests who went to the police station to help were also detained. Outside the station, their car was set on fire.
“We are pained, and we are shocked,” said Cardinal Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, at a news conference in New Delhi. “This incident creates further anxiety in the minds and hearts of the Christian faithful and the minorities in the country.”
Those of us who’ve visited India are aware of the pride its citizens take in the enormous variety of faiths and religious practice that co-exist there. But that co-existence is fragmenting badly and, as the story points out, when the radicals run out of religious minorities to attack, they turn on fellow Hindus they deem not to have a pure enough faith.
There is one very interesting hole in this piece, in terms of basic facts.
The piece mentions that Christianity arrived several centuries ago with the British (or more correctly with the Portuguese in the 15th century), but fails to include India’s 2,000-year-old Christian community known as “St. Thomas Christians” after the apostle who made it to the Malabar Coast about 2,000 years ago. Do these folks, who are concentrated in the southern states, face the same harassment?
I’m also curious why the radical Hindus mentioned in this piece find Christmas so threatening. According to this piece in an Indian business magazine –- and written by an admitted atheist -– Christian missionaries have been trying to convert India for centuries, with very little success. So now the Hindus are going after Christmas carolers?
The Indian website Scroll just posted an article similar to what the Times had with even more examples. It called the Hindu nationalists "the grinch of Christmas."
Religious violence is part of the warp and woof of India's history, as the attack (by Pakistani Muslims) on a Jewish center in Mumbai back in 2008 shows us. But there was a great desire among the populace to celebrate the country's immense religious diversity. All that changed in 2014 with the election of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. Three years later, the chickens are coming home to roost and things are pretty dire on the religious persecution front.
Do click on this link for the whole story, as it's well worth reading about how the past three years have been a slow campaign by the nationalists to punish any kind of celebration for another religion. A piece out this week by The Guardian tells of the "Kafkaesque nightmare" that the current government is allowing to fester all over the country.
I'm hoping the New York Times continues to chronicle the country's slide toward religious authoritarianism, which sounds like it may get a lot more worse before it gets better.