President Trump has praised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his commitment to upholding religious freedom, despite evidence that the Hindu leader is continuing to inflame religious tensions across the nation.
"The prime minister was incredible in what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly,” Trump told reporters as his two-day visit to India came to an end. “He said that, in India, they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom. And if you look back and you look at what’s going on, relative to other places especially, but they have really worked hard on religious freedom."
Amongst religious minorities, the mood is very different indeed. Ever since he came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi has peddled a corrosive form of Hindu nationalism which continues to give rise to a new wave of religious persecution against Christians and Muslims alike.
Groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - an all-male paramilitary group linked to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - are well-known for their perpetrating violence against the Christian community. Forced conversions, beatings and incidences of intimidation are common. One local pastor from the small village of Kohla, Uttar Pradesh, told the Telegraph: “We get regular visits from local Hindu leaders who tell us to convert. We have faced so many troubles but we hope the Christian community will rise again."
Another church leader explained how this ultra-nationalist mindset - which views Christianity as a foreign faith and Hinduism as the only fitting religious tradition for Indians - has infiltrated much of the police force, too. Pastor Jai Singh, who ministers in the town of Bitchpuri, recalled being attacked by a 200-strong mob as he led morning prayers at his home. "They hit me with their fists and then took me into the temple and beat me with sticks, before stretching my legs back as far as they would go," he said. The leader suffered two broken feet.
Despite the brutality of the violence, police rarely prosecute the assailants. "They do not protect us,” Singh said of the authorities, adding that their inaction is because "they also believe we are doing something wrong."
He added: “They don’t give you any trouble if you are a Hindu.”
Prior to Modi's election, India was ranked outside the top 30 on the Open Doors "World Watch List." Now, it is the logged as the tenth most oppressive nation on earth in which to live as a Christian.
"Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, incidents against Christians have increased, and Hindu radicals often attack Christians with little to no consequences," the persecution watchdog notes on its factsheet.
Open Doors adds: "Christians in India face horrific levels of violence from extremists—thousands of attacks take place every year. Several states in India have adopted anti-conversion laws, and the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made it clear that it wants to impose these laws nationwide. Such laws are often used as an excuse to disrupt church services and harass Christians, and make it incredibly difficult for Christians to share their faith with others.
"Converts to Christianity from a Hindu background are especially vulnerable to persecution and are constantly under pressure to return to Hinduism, especially through campaigns known as Ghar Wapsi (“home-coming”). They are often physically assaulted and sometimes killed."
Religious freedom legal experts from the Alliance Defending Freedom (AFD) has recorded a 220 per cent increase in violent attacks on Christians since 2014 when Modi took office. In January 2020 alone, ADF India recorded 27 incidents of violence against Christians.
Muslims, too, have been relentlessly oppressed under Mr Modi's government. In recent months, clashes have erupted over the Prime Minister's new citizenship law, which effectively allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are illegal immigrants in India to become fully-fledged citizens if they can show they were being persecuted because of their religion in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Crucially, the law does not apply to Muslims. Understandably, this has caused outrage in the Islamic community.
As a result, over this past week, some 42 people have been killed in violent clashes between the Muslim and Hindu communities of New Delhi. An additional 300 were injured in the worst sectarian violence seen in a major Indian city since 2002, when more than 1,000 people were killed in riots in Gujarat.