Almost 400 churches have been burned to the ground or damaged by Hindu extremists in India’s northeastern state of Manipur since the beginning of May, according to Christian organization Open Doors. More than 120 Christians have been killed, and over 10,000 have fled their homes. Some are hiding in the surrounding forests, deprived of basic necessities, while others remain in army rescue camps. The prevailing message from their persecutors: If you are not Hindu, then you’re not Indian.
The rise of Hindu extremist groups has grown since 2014 when Narendra Modi became prime minister. Modi’s Hindu nationalistic rhetoric has contributed to religious liberty becoming even scarcer, despite India’s constitution granting the right to religious freedom.
In contrast to southern India, where there are many churches and a history of Christian missionaries, believers in rural, northern India encounter persecution more often.
In contrast to southern India, where there are many churches and a history of Christian missionaries, believers in rural, northern India encounter persecution more often. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 12 of the 28 states in India have adopted anti-conversion laws. These laws can prohibit sharing the gospel and baptizing people from non-Christians backgrounds, and threaten fines or imprisonment for those who want to practice a religion outside of the four dharmic religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
In response to this violence and a mob’s public sexual assault of two women from a predominantly Christian tribe in Manipur, thousands have recently held protests across the country. This includes a large sit-in protest, consisting of mostly women, in Manipur, according to the Associated Press News.
The Church Under Pressure
The situation for Christian churches in India is not black and white. For example, there is a small, but significant portion of registered churches that are grouped into the Church of North India or the Church of South India. These are predominantly Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist churches. Roman Catholic churches are able to officially register more easily as well.
Persecution has led to the rise of house churches in northern India.
Still, persecution has led to the rise of house churches in northern India, as some individual states prohibit churches from legally registering. Sometimes congregations meet discreetly in a person’s house, but many others gather in facilities like a normal church. They are known as house churches, not because they always meet in a home, but because they are unregistered.
The Hope in the Darkness
Even with the rising persecution in northern India, believers report stories of hope.
A Christian worker in South Asia told Radical about a woman in northern India who became a believer after hearing about Jesus for the first time. The gospel brought transformation, but it also brought trials, especially when her husband became abusive and unfaithful. But God can soften the hardest hearts, and after an abundance of prayer and counseling, her husband became a Christian too.
Sadly, the woman passed away at age 35, but her husband continued to grow in the church. As a result of this couple’s faithfulness to the Lord despite persecution, they led multiple family members to Christ and shared their faith with about 250 people in their villages.
A pastor in northern India also told Radical about a high school boy from a Hindu village who started to study the Bible on his own. The study led him to repent of his sins and place his faith in Jesus. He was baptized the following year, and now serves as an elder in his church. This believer is from Uttar Pradesh––the same state where a Hindu mob attacked Christians in a village this past New Year’s day, leading many believers to flee for their lives.
Even funerals can bring opportunities to share the gospel. Despite legal restrictions, some unregistered churches are able to obtain land for a cemetery. These Christian funerals are an opportunity to openly preach the gospel. One house church reports they’ve been able to talk about Christ with some 100 unbelievers during three funerals.
The Challenge Ahead
For house churches to grow healthy and stable long term, believers need to establish a biblical, theological foundation—and they need to help converts learn how to be shaped by Scripture instead of their culture.
For house churches to grow healthy and stable long term, believers need to help converts learn how to be shaped by Scripture instead of their culture.
Many people in India’s communal culture view house churches as upstarts under foreign influence. When an Indian becomes a member of a church and is publically baptized, he may lose connections with his family and friends. Some may end up back in Hinduism because they cannot find a place in the community. This makes it crucial for churches to become a new community for those ostracized by family and friends because of faith in Christ.
Let’s pray for God to strengthen and grow his church. Pray for the Lord to preserve his people from persecution and to equip them with his word as they experience suffering (2 Samuel 22:3–4; 2 Timothy 3:16). We can also pray for and give to faithful local churches and missionaries so they can continue sharing the redeeming hope of the gospel to those who so desperately need to hear it.