By Ritu Sharma
As a turbulent year winds up, Indian Christians look to the New Year with apprehension amid growing violent bigotry.
Many are hoping that the government of the Hindu-majority country will do more to contain hate crimes against religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims.
The year 2017 saw the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), already controlling the national government, extend its rule to 18 of 29 states.
Presentation Sister Anastasia Gill, a member of the Delhi Minority Commission, said minorities are feeling insecure.
Every day at least five cases of religion-based violence were reported, mainly in the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, she said.
She added that fanatically nationalist Hindu forces were responsible for the erosion of religious freedom.
With national elections due in 2019, fanatics could seek to divide the electorate on religious lines in order to secure more Hindu votes for the BJP.
Some of these militant groups have the ultimate aim of establishing a “Hindu-only” India.
Muslim and Christian leaders say in the past three years, since the BJP came to power in New Delhi, minority communities have faced worsening persecution.
This had included physical attacks such as Hindu militant lynchings of people involved in the slaughter for meat of revered cattle.
When BJP came to power in 2014, there were only three violent attacks on people that year over the treatment of cattle, but this was up to 24 in 2016.
2017 saw an all time high of 34 incidents in which people were attacked for alleged involvement in the transport or slaughter of cattle.
At least 29 people died. Most of them were Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, but Muslims were also killed.
A U.S. report dealing with worldwide religious freedom in 2017 criticized the Indian Government for presiding over deteriorating religious tolerance.
The report placed India in a category of countries where intolerance is considered to be serious.
Even the monitoring group World Watch List calculated that in India during 2016, a church was burnt down, or a cleric beaten, on average 10 times a week.
This was a threefold rise on the previous year.
Christians constitute only 2.3 per cent of the 1.2 billion Indian population, still making them the second largest religious minority after Muslims.
Both Christians and Muslims have come under attack for allegedly trying to convert Hindus.
Christians are also accused of using inducements, such as educational and health services, to convert tribal minorities, some of whom are animists.
Sister Gill said that many Christians, who lived in fear of losing their lives or property, hide their identities.
Several intellectuals and journalists, who challenged Hindu cast hegemony and superstitions, were also attacked in the past year.
Hopes for New Year
However, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told ucanews.com that Christians were looking forward to the New Year being filled with life, hope and joy.
“Nothing can shatter our resolve to live and work for Jesus,” Cardinal Cleemis said.
“If there are problems, we will overcome them because our faith is in the resurrected Lord, not in any dead god.”
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the conference, told ucanews.com the Christian community had faith that the government would act to protect religious minorities.
The whole of India wanted concerted action against those threatening freedom of religion and expression, he added.
Some Christian leaders feel that “fringe elements” were emboldened by BJP political dominance, considering it a mandate to push a violent agenda.
Joseph Dias, founder of the Catholic Secular Forum, complained that official “lip service” on minority rights contrasted with a dismal track record.
Dias predicted that in 2018 there would be even more attacks on Christians and other minorities as religion became increasingly politicized.