Why Indian Christians Choose to Follow Jesus Despite Persecution

Image: Pixabay/Devanath

When Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet assembled on May 30 to take their oath of office, nobody expected that a relatively unknown minister sworn in at the end of the ceremony would steal the show.

Applause broke from the audience when Pratap Sarangi walked onto the stage. Earlier that day, a picture of him leaving the austere hut where he lives went viral, drawing praise for his modest lifestyle.

But Sarangi’s spot in the limelight also resurfaced a controversial issue in India: religious conversions.

Sarangi was the leader of Bajrang Dal, an extremist Hindu militant organization that was accused of the 1999 murders of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in Odisha.

An official investigation didn’t cast blame on any particular group, and although over a dozen people were convicted and given life sentences, all but one were eventually released. Dara Singh, who presumably led the mob who attacked the Staines, was sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted to life in prison.

Sarangi has denied involvement in the crime and distanced himself from Singh, whom he says was not part of Bajrang Dal. But he has not shied from accusing Christians of converting Indians by force or fraudulent methods, most recently characterizing conversions as asking for sex in exchange for a favor.

Since 1999, attacks against Christians in India have sharply increased, particularly in the north. Last year, Open Doors, which ranks global levels of persecution, included India for the first time ever in the top 10 nations where Christians are persecuted.

As was the case with the murder of the Staines, much of the violence is incited by extremists who, for decades, have spread the propaganda preached by Sarangi that Christians convert people by offering humanitarian aid or by using threats of physical force.

This propaganda is behind anti-conversion laws in several states across India. The laws are purportedly aimed at protecting vulnerable people from false conversions but practically designed to curtail religious freedom to Christians and other minorities.

Lost in this narrative is the reality that those who spread these accusations do not understand how Christian conversions actually work. They also conveniently ignore the stories of eminent Indians who have decided to follow Jesus exclusively and out of personal conviction.

Pandita Ramabai, a highly revered figure in the history of women’s emancipation in India, is one such example. Born into an upper-caste family, she was extremely gifted with languages, becoming the first Hindu woman to be recognized as a scholar of Sanskrit and single-handedly translating the Bible into her mother tongue Marathi, a language spoken by over 80 million people. Her advocacy for women’s right to education was recognized in a commemorative stamp in 1989.

Narayan Vaman Tilak, a gifted poet who also spoke Marathi, also had a spiritual encounter with Jesus that led him and eventually his wife to believe in Jesus’ Gospel. He was a relative of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the fathers of India’s independence. An established poet of his time, Narayan worked on developing an indigenous expression of the Christian faith.

Scholars believe even Jotiba Phule, pioneer of the movement to abolish untouchability and cofounder with his wife of the first Indian-run school for women, possibly had some faith in Jesus.

This is because of his writings on the “Baliraja” — the mythical king who sacrificed himself for the sake of his people. He called Jesus the Baliraja II. It’s also evident Phule was moved by the Bible’s message of liberation for the oppressed, who in India’s context are all those oppressed by the caste system. He criticized the British government for removing the study of the Bible in schools.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today