Persecution of Christians in India is inextricably linked to the fact that many suffer discrimination for being members of the dalit or “untouchable” caste, and Hindu extremists have become “bolder and more mainstream” in recent memory, a prominent Indian Christian bishop tells Breitbart News.
In an exclusive interview, Rev. Joseph D’Souza, the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church of India and a longtime activist for dalit rights, tells Breitbart News that violence against Christians in India has grown in the past decade along with the rise of “radicalized religious groups.” Christians face persecution from both Muslims and Hindu nationalists, the latter whom also perceive Islam as a foreign religion.
“The major challenge facing Christians in India is violence at the hand of radicalized religious groups,” Rev. D’Souza explains. “In many cases these groups attack churches and Christians, including pastors, with virtual impunity. State and local governments are not acting fast enough to bring the culprits under the law and provide protection for Christians.”
“Sadly, these violent groups have become bolder and more mainstream, even though the majority of Hindus do not subscribe to their radicalized religious views,” he added.
Being a clergyman in India has become increasingly dangerous in the past decade. Recent cases such as that of Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy – found beaten and hanging from his church ceiling in Tamil Nadu in January – and Rev. Sultan Masih – killed in a drive-by shooting in Punjab last year, often remain unsolved. Police ruled Pastor Periyaswamy’s death a “suicide” and closed the case, triggering Christian protests.
D’Souza explained that extremist groups typically incite violence against Christians by claiming that they “are involved in forced and fraudulent conversions, when nothing could be farther from the truth. They also say Christianity is a foreign religion imported from the West, when in reality Christianity is as native to India as any other religion.”
“Indian Christians trace their history 2,000 years back to the first century, when tradition says the Apostle Thomas traveled to South India and established the first church in the subcontinent,” D’Souza noted.
The Christians of Kerala, India, hold that St. Thomas traveled through the Middle East and southeast into India following the death of Jesus Christ. Some have debated whether St. Thomas reached Kerala or stayed in northwest India; Pope Benedict XVI, in particular, ignited a nationwide controversy after stating in a homily that “Thomas first evangelized Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India from where Christianity reached also south India.” Controversy over where in India he went aside, most theologians and scholars agree that St. Thomas brought Christianity to India in the first century AD.
Despite this, propaganda claiming that Christianity is a Western corrupting influence on Indian culture has been increasingly successful, D’Souza says. “Of course, religiously incited violence has always been present, but it has rarely been so prevalent and unrestrained,” he notes. “There is palpable fear among the Christian community in many parts of India.”
The bishop notes that discrimination and violence against Christians is “compounded” by the fact that many of those who convert to Christianity are dalits.
“There’s a direct link between discrimination against Christians and members of lower castes, especially the Dalits, sometimes called ‘untouchables,’” he notes. “For one, demographically speaking, a large portion of Christians in India belong to lower-caste groups who often live in the provincial areas where religious tensions are more prevalent. Yet more important is the fact that Dalits — including Schedules Castes and Tribals — are already targets of prejudice, ostracism and even physical violence because of their caste.”
D’Souza argues that America has a stake in seeing the end of Christian persecution in India.
“It’s in America’s interest that India remains a place where religious freedom is both cherished and protected,” he explains. “Religious freedom is more than a matter of the personal right to choose one’s religion or lack thereof. Without religious freedom and its subset, harmony between faiths, it’s impossible to build stable, strong economies and democracies.”
“We’ve seen time and again how religious radicalism has destroyed the social fabric of many nations with deadly consequences for their people,” he continues. “As the U.S. and India strengthen their alliance and become partners on economic, technological and homeland defense fronts, it’s proper to address issues of religious radicalism in both our great nations.”
D’Souza noted that many positive steps have been taken for Indian Christians in America.
“We were greatly encouraged when the previous administration strengthened and affirmed the International Religious Freedom Act,” he told Breitbart News. “Moreover, we’ve been encouraged by how President Trump’s administration has made international religious freedom a priority, especially to achieve peace between religious communities.”
Of American Christians, D’Souza says, “The most important thing American Christians can do to help Indian Christians is pray for them. Pray as if they were your own family, because they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. And pray not only for protection, but for boldness to remain faithful to the gospel at all times.”
D’Souza’s Dalit Freedom Network also advocates for all members of the dalit caste, many who are Christians.