Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Hundreds of Indian Christians arrested during protest over church attacks

Christians take to the streets of Delhi to protest against government inaction following a spate of attacks on churches

Hundreds of Indian Christians were arrested in New Delhi on Thursday during a protest against government inaction following a series of attacks on local churches that raised fears of increasing religious intolerance in the Indian capital.

The protesters — who included nuns and priests — attempted to march from a cathedral near the country’s parliament to Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence, located in a high-security area where protests are banned. The protesters targeted Singh because he is responsible for maintaining domestic law and order.

The action, organized by church leaders and activists, followed an incident on Monday in which unknown persons broke into a Delhi church, desecrating property. The crime was the latest in a series of reported arsons, burglaries and acts of vandalism targeting local churches. In total, five churches have been attacked in the last two months.

"A clear pattern of orchestrated attacks is emerging as more churches are targeted, vandalized and set on fire," Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto told reporters Thursday.

While the overwhelming majority of India's 1.26 billion citizens are Hindu, it is officially a secular country. Christians, who comprise only about 2.3 percent (28 million) of the population, say attacks on churches have increased since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept national elections last May.

Though hate groups have targeted Indian Christians in the past, some experts say the BJP’s victory has bolstered their activities.

“Since the elections, certain more anti-Christian groups in India have gotten emboldened and have engaged in somewhat more provocative acts,” Chad Bauman, an associate professor of religion at Butler University who studies Hindu-Christian relations, told Al Jazeera.

Following the recent attacks, church leaders and activists are demanding that authorities establish an independent panel to investigate hate crimes carried out against the Christian community.

"We don't trust the police to conduct an impartial inquiry. We want a panel headed by a high court judge to investigate these attacks," said human rights activist John Dayal, who was among those arrested Thursday. "Our demand is for justice and security for the Christian community."

Indian Christians aren’t the only minority community who feel threatened by Hindu nationalists.

In December, Junior Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti asked a crowd gathered at an election rally in Delhi whether they wanted India to be governed by "the children of (Hindu deity) Ram or the children of bastards," referring to Christians and Muslims.

Following public outcry, Jyoti apologized, saying, "If my speech hurt anyone, I take back my words." Modi reportedly told members of parliament that he "disapproved of such language," but resisted calls to sack the minister.

Later the same month, about 250 poor Muslims in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh complained that Hindu groups had tricked them into a conversion ceremony with promises of cheap government rations and voter identity cards. 

Another planned mass conversion of Christians and Muslims on Christmas Day by a hardline Hindu group was postponed after protesters argued that participants were being duped into the ceremony, and that its date was purposely provocative.

Bauman explained that the underlying tensions between Christians and Hindus in India centers on the issue of anti-colonial and anti-Western sentiment, as well as Indian conversions to Christianity, a point of contention among many Hindus.  

“Christianity has been seen since the colonial period as a foreign religion and so to a certain degree, any anti-Christian group has a bit of a tinge of anti-colonialism associated with it," he said. “And more recently as well, Christianity has been associated in the minds of many in India with Westernization." 

Indian Christians, however, say they’re only concerned with their security.

“We want the protection of our churches. We are not demanding it as Christians, but as citizens of India,” said Savarimathu Sankar, a spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese.

Home Minister Singh tweeted that he met Christian leaders Thursday to assure them he would not tolerate any discrimination. Singh promised an independent investigation into the church attacks and assured the leaders that increased security would be provided to the community — ordering at least two policemen be posted at all 225 churches in the city.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.

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