Christians praying in Madurai, India. Credit: Andrei Kravtsov

Fighting the Rising Tide of Religious Intolerance in South Asia

“Christians are the new scapegoat in India’s political battles,” said Smita Narula, author of the report and researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “Without immediate and decisive action by the government, communal tensions will continue to be exploited for political and economic ends.”

While this quote is relevant today, sadly it was written in 1999…25 years ago! This Human Rights Watch report titled “Politics by Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India”, documented the role of Sangh Parivar organizations and the local media in promoting anti-Christian propaganda, the exploitation of communal differences to mask political and economic motives underlying the attacks, local and state government complicity in the attacks, and the failure of the central government to meet its constitutional and international obligations to protect minorities.

In South Asia, securing religious freedom poses a challenge. Religious minorities are specifically targeted for their beliefs, which greatly compromises their religious freedom. The discrimination against religious minorities within each of these countries (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan) fosters a culture of impunity towards human rights violations.

While there are a lot of differences among countries in this subregion, generally speaking, Christians and other religious minorities face many consequences based on their beliefs including:

  • Discrimination: Religious minorities can face discrimination in public life, such as in education, employment, and access to justice.
  • Violence: Religious minorities can be targeted for their beliefs and face violence, including attacks, hate speech, destruction of churches and religious sites, and land-grabbing.
  • Cultural impunity: Discrimination can create a culture that tolerates human rights abuses including false blasphemy charges.
  • Majoritarian trends: Governments in South Asia have passed laws to prohibit religious conversions from the dominant religious group, which can be motivated by a fear of minority groups.
  • Religious conflicts: In some countries, national identity is conflated with one religion, which can lead to political animosity towards minority groups.

In its 2023 annual report, the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) once again asked the US government to designate India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ when it comes to religious freedom. As well as highlighting anti-minority statements from ruling politicians and numerous instances of physical violence, the Commission highlighted the effects of anti-conversion laws.

“These laws are not limited to instances of coercion, and they contain broad and vague language that can be used to target voluntary religious conversions.”

Each year Open Doors International releases its World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians suffer most for their faith. Approximately 75.3 million Christians reside in two South Asian countries: Pakistan, where Islam is the main religion, has extreme persecution and ranks 7th and India, where Hinduism is the main religion, also has extreme persecution and ranks 11th.

Let’s take a closer look at the situation in India, the most populous country in the world with approximately 1.4 billion people. The U.S. Department of State 2023 International Religious Freedom Report includes this excerpt about Christians in India:

“In its World Watch List report covering 2023, the Christian NGO Open Doors stated that Christians in the country were ‘increasingly under threat…by an ongoing belief among some Hindu extremists that Indians ought to be Hindu — and any faith outside of Hinduism is not welcome in India.’ The NGO said, ‘This mindset has led to violent attacks across the country and impunity for the people who perpetrate this violence, especially in places where the authorities are also Hindu hardliners.’ The NGO also said, with more states implementing anti conversion laws, there is ‘an environment where any Christian who shares their faith can be accused of a crime, intimidated, harassed and even met with violence.’ Open Doors stated that 160 Christians were killed for ‘faith-related reasons’ in the country from October 1, 2022 to September 30, 2023 and 2228 Christian properties including churches were attacked.”

One example of violence is in Manipur, India. Christianity Today reported that “While ethnic tensions have festered for decades, leaders in Manipur say religious extremism is fueling extreme aggression.” 

21Wilberforce recently partnered with Baptist Aid, The Manipur Baptist Convention through their Executive Secretary, the Kuki Baptist Churches Association, and the Kuki Baptist Independent Church to provide trauma counseling for Christians in Manipur.

An annual report issued by The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) also documents an escalation in targeted violence, hate crimes, and systematic oppression faced by the Christian community across India in 2023. According to data collected by the RLC, 601 incidents of anti-Christian violence were recorded last year.

These statistics merely scratch the surface, as countless incidents likely go unreported due to fear of reprisal or police apathy towards registering cases involving religious minorities. EFI emphasizes that vulnerable groups such as Dalit and Adivasi (tribal) Christians, as well as Christian women, face compounded discrimination and violence due to their intersectional identities.

Given the violence in Manipur, statistics for violence against Christians this year could be higher. In the first two and one-half months of 2024, 161 cases were reported according to complaints received on a toll-free helpline run by the United Christian Forum. Founded in 2014, the United Christian Forum (UCF) includes the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). UCF plays a significant role in advocating for the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in India. For the last decade, UCF has worked to improve access to justice, provide legal support, and raise awareness about the situation of religious minorities in India.

UCF petitioned for strengthening of human rights monitoring mechanisms, appropriate redress for victimized Christian individuals and institutions, and for First Information Reports (FIRs) to be immediately registered upon receipt of complaints by victims of religion-based violence, among others. As a result, in March 2020, it was noteworthy that the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva included in her presentation to the Human Rights Council a mention of violence against Christians in India.

In February 2023, UCF wrote to the President of India to request that the constitutional rights of the Christian community be protected. In a document expressing deep concern over 597 incidents of violence committed against Christians in 21 states in India, it petitioned the President to ask both the Union and State governments to safeguard the rights and freedom of the Christian community to practice its faith, run its educational facilities, and live with respect throughout India, as its safety has come under severe threat.

Another encouraging development is the formation of the Southeast Asia Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (SEAPFoRB). This is a working group of 34 current and former parliamentarians from seven counties in Southeast Asia who want to advance FoRB in the region. The group addresses several issues including hate speech, discrimination and persecution of minorities, and repressive laws, including those criminalizing blasphemy or restricting the building of places of worship.

SEAPFoRB provides sorely needed leadership and guidance to promote legislation, policies and best practices. They aim to build the capacity of lawmakers in the region and engage relevant stakeholders to advance religious freedoms locally, nationally, and regionally. 

Further, in 2020 the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), launched an initiative called “Closing the Gap” to analyze religious freedom, political stability and development. The project focused on how religious leaders and interfaith groups play an important role in promoting dialogue, reducing mistrust, and building bridges between community members of different religious traditions at the local level in India. The outcome helped shape training for practitioners in the country.

There is so much more to be done in India and South Asia. Reflecting the Christian call to be “salt and light” in the world, 21Wilberforce is listening to local communities and investing in Christian leaders and churches, the frontline workers with a vision of building up indigenous sustainable religious freedom advocacy as follows:

  1. Capacity-building for religious freedom for Christian leaders and advocates (including training on international standards, national human rights law, advocacy, and security).
  2. Establishment and deployment of local documentation systems to ensure credible reporting of violations (including published country briefings and regional reports).
  3. Local, national and international advocacy (including individual meetings per country with decision-makers and international advocacy missions to the UN in Geneva/NY).
  4. Establishment of country and regional centers to build multi- or cross-religious support for Christians and human rights defenders working to secure religious freedom.

As we continue to explore more partnerships in local communities with India and other South Asian countries, we ask you to join us by praying for guidance and for churches here in the States that will come alongside 21Wilberforce.