The body of Rev. Gideon Periyaswamy, 43-year-old pastor of the church of Maknayeem in Adayachery village, in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state, was found hanging from the roof of his house on 20 January. Church congregation members who discovered his body described his knees bent to the floor and his body hanging abnormally. When the police released the knot, they saw a cut under his throat with a noticeable blood clot.
This incident came a week after the church leader complained to police about threats from Hindu extremists, describing them as “some village people troubling him”. The church members claim that he was harassed and endured humiliating jokes in recent months by local Hindus who were not happy with the increasing number of Christians in the area.
A convert from Hinduism 25 years ago, Periyaswamy had been the pastor of the church in Adayachery for 12 years. Despite the harassment, he had told his community they should be at peace with their neighbours and not create grounds for disagreement.
Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, told AsiaNews that the circumstances surrounding the pastor’s death are “strange” and underlined the inconsistencies. He demanded “a complete investigation, especially in light of the threats received in the past”.
The incident coincides with the release of the Human Rights Watch World Report 2018, according to which religious minorities in India continue to face numerous human rights issues, including violent attacks. They noted that the attacks were often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and were not credibly investigated by the government. Instead, many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted ultra-nationalism, thus encouraging further violence, Human Rights Watch said.
The report also listed issues including freedom of expression, the rights of women, girls, children and the disabled, sexual orientation, and the death penalty.
In 2017 there were at least 38 attacks against religious minorities in response to rumours that the minority group members sold, bought or killed cows for beef. Instead of taking legal action against attackers, police frequently filed complaints against victims under the law banning cow slaughter, the report stated.
Church burnt down
In another recent incident, a church was burnt down, apparently by Hindus, in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state on 16 January. The attack took place after a Hindu family alleged that their daughter was killed by her husband, who they claimed had previously forced her to convert to Christianity.
Police said a 25-year-old Hindu woman, Seema Devi, married a local Hindu man, Rinku Kumar, two years ago, who took his wife to the northern Punjab state, where she recently died.
Her husband brought Devi’s body back to his home village in Kashmir for burial with Christian rituals. Her family claimed that Kumar had converted to Christianity in Punjab. They objected and cremated Devi with Hindu rituals.
Her uncle said: “We came to know last month, when she told us over the phone that her husband took her to Christmas prayers at a church in Punjab. He must have coerced her to convert to Christianity.”
In the outbreak of violence following Devi’s death, about 12 people, including some policemen, were injured.
The violence is unusual in the Muslim-dominated state, where Christians have not faced any hostility from Hindus.
Christian leaders have been accusing hard-line Hindu groups of attacking their communities in northern India ever since the pro-Hindu BJP came to power four years ago. According to Christians, Hindu groups interpreted the BJP victory as a mandate to pursue their goal of making India a Hindu-only nation.
Since May 2014, when BJP leader Narendra Modi came to power, Christians and members of other religious minorities have complained of worsening conditions for them, including more frequent attacks against their worship places and discriminatory laws, including anti-conversion measures and bans on the sale or consumption of beef (because cows are sacred in Hinduism).
Recently, an editorial in the BJP’s press outlet said India was “not a country for Christians” or other non-Hindu faiths, as “they have their own countries”.
There are about 64,000,000 Christians in India, which make up less than 5 per cent of the population. The non-traditional Christian communities make up nearly 60 per cent of the Christians in India and include an ever-growing number of converts to Christianity. They consist of more than 1,100 denominations, including Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Brethren, Full Gospel and Assemblies of God.