An Indian pastor and his pregnant wife were assaulted and their church set on fire on Sunday evening (17 April) after they refused to praise a Hindu god.
Pastor Dinbanhu Sameli, 30, and his wife, Meena, 26, seven months pregnant, lead a church in the troubled Bastar district of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh.
Two young men approached the pastor outside his home next to his church at around 7pm, initially asking for prayer, claiming they were from a nearby Methodist church. But they later brought out a sword which they held to the pastor’s neck, and demanded the couple shout the phrase, “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to the god Ram).
“Where is your Jesus?” the two men demanded; Sameli replied “We believe that he is with us”. When asked “Why don’t you believe in Ram?” husband and wife remained silent.
When the couple refused to do praise Ram, and also refused to stamp on a Bible, the two men took a litre of petrol and set fire to the church, including musical equipment.
Sameli said he “felt fear in his heart” with the sword on his shoulder, but “prayed that God would save him”.
As the church burned, the couple fled and filed a report with the police.
But local media then blamed the incident on the local Methodist pastor, and also erroneously reported that the couple had been doused in petrol and set alight.
The incident took place in the remote village of Karanji, in the Tokapal area of the sprawling Bastar district, which has seen several recent incidents of anti-Christian violence at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. Last year, the couple told World Watch Monitor, a gang of people from a militant Hindu group, Bajrang Dal, came on two tractors, shouted “Jai Shri Ram” in front of the church, and wrote the same slogan on its front wall, on both the sides of the main door.
In July 2014, the village of Belar, also in Bastar, passed a resolution banning all non-Hindu religious activities.
In October 2014, the high court of Chhattisgarh state asked the state government to ensure that anti-Christian resolutions passed by village councils would not infringe religious freedom. A Christian organisation challenging the local resolutions said at the time that the court order was “only a minor relief.”
“This [latest] incident cannot be seen in isolation from what is happening here,” Arun Pannalal, president of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF), told World Watch Monitor.
“[That] the police have registered [a report] against ‘unknown miscreants’ is laughable,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “In a small town, police [are] well informed. Police [are] trying to protect them.”
“Tokapal is a very small place, where everybody knows everybody. Police registering [a report] against unidentified persons itself is an indication that police [are] trying to downplay the incident and protect the accused,” Pannalal was quoted by the Times of India as saying.
Pannalal told World Watch Monitor “the police officers who have failed to protect our fundamental rights should be suspended immediately and [investigated] for dereliction of duty.”
Sameli assured World Watch Monitor contacts who phoned him on Thursday 21st April that police are now working with him on the case.
Recent incidents involving minority Christians
Between January and April 2016 there have been 49 reported incidents -14 in April alone – in Chhattisgarh, ruled by the Hindu nationalist party the BJP. Over ther same time there have been 116 in total in central India, although these include women tortured by their husbands for their faith, other beatings of pastors, and a case of villagers not allowing a Christian to be buried.
On 17 March, the Municipal Corporation of Raipur, the state capital, gave a demolition notice to a Pentecostal church, saying it had been built on land to which it had no right. Ten days before, the church had been vandalised by Hindu fundamentalists during Sunday worship, and worshippers beaten up.
Over a thousand Christians staged a sit-in under the banner of CCF the next day, and the demolition order was withdrawn.
In February, a pastor was beaten during a prayer meeting, while two months earlier a group of activists from Bajrang Dal demolished a venue where people were celebrating the establishment of a church in Korba.
In 2014 and 2015, 93 organised attacks on Christians were reported in Chhattisgarh.