ALIGARH, India — The trouble started a few months ago, when Hindu nationalists swept into a small village where several families had converted to Christianity more than a decade earlier. They held a fire purification ceremony with the villagers, tore a cross off the local church and put up a poster of the god Shiva. The space was now a temple, they declared.
Then right-wing Hindu groups announced a Christmas Day ceremony where they planned to welcome hundreds of Christians and Muslims into Hinduism. A fundraising flier solicited donations for volunteers to undergo conversion — about $3,200 for each Christian and about $8,000 for each Muslim.
After a nationwide furor, organizers on Tuesday postponed the ceremony. But one of them, Rajeshwar Singh Solanki, said in an interview Thursday that his group will demonstrate against any church baptisms performed on the holiday. He said his group’s ultimate aim is to ensure that Islam and Christianity “cease to exist” in India.
Christians in Aligarh say they are afraid of what might happen on their holy day.
“We just want security from the government, particularly on Christmas,” said Ajay Joseph, 39, a lab technician.
His fears echo those of other religious minorities in majority-Hindu India, where some Christians and Muslims worry that incidents of religious tolerance will rise with the advent of a conservative government led by Narendra Modi, himself a fervent Hindu nationalist. In recent days, carolers have been beaten in the southern city of Hyderabad, and a Catholic church in New Delhi burned in a suspected case of arson. A conservative Hindu group said Wednesday that another mass “conversion” event would be held in February.
For several days this month, India’s secular Parliament repeatedly lapsed into chaos as members debated religious conversions and a plan that would have kept students in school on Christmas, normally a holiday, and designate Dec. 25 “Good Governance Day.” The country’s foreign minister also called for designating the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita the “national scripture.”
“They are feeling nobody can do anything to them because of Narendra Modi,” said Yusuf Dass, a pastor at Central Methodist Church in Aligarh. Dass, 32, the grandson of a minister, grew up in nearby Agra and is from a family that has been part of India’s Christian minority for generations. He rides a motorcycle with the words “Glory to God” on the windshield.
“They were saying this country belongs to Hindus and India should belong only to Hindus. I don’t know who is misguiding them,” Dass said.
Christians make up just over 2 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population and historically have been targeted less frequently than the country’s Muslim communities. Christian missionaries, who have been coming to India for centuries, have encountered resistance from Hindu devotees who say they use charitable work as a mask for proselytizing, particularly to members of the country’s lowest castes.
“If missionaries are working in a particular place and they are crossing the limits, then only do we get involved ourselves,” said Ram Kumar Ary, a regional director in Aligarh for a firebrand Hindu volunteer group affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organization where Modi got his start. Many espouse the belief that every Hindu must work to reconvert those who left Hinduism for other faiths because of threats or coercion.
“It’s a constitutional right for a person to choose what religion to belong to, and if somebody is doing it out of their own free will, why is the government bothered about that?” Ary said.
India’s 64-year-old prime minister has a troubling history of religious intolerance, opponents say. In 2005, while he was chief minister in the state of Gujarat, the United States revoked Modi’s U.S. visa on the grounds that he had committed “severe violations of religious freedom” by not acting to stop Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.
John Dayal, a former president of the All India Catholic Union and a member of the government’s National Integration Council, said that RSS volunteers, called pracharaks, now have an ally at the top of India’s government and feel emboldened to act more freely than in previous years.
Dayal said that about 150 hate crimes are generally committed against Christians each year throughout India and that this year, instances of pastors and churchgoers being beaten, prayer meetings broken up and churches vandalized have been documented. A Catholic church in New Delhi burned this month, sparking protests and an appeal from the archbishop for protection. That case is under investigation.
“The Christian community is clearly concerned. We are actually scared,” Dayal said. “They are acting with impunity, and the government has done little to stop them.”
In Hyderabad on Friday, Christian carolers on their way home from a late-night church service clashed with revelers in a local wedding party, according to the pastor, Bheemudu Naik. About three dozen people objected to the Christians’ singing and began punching and kicking the carolers, Naik said.
“We have been living amicably in the locality for long, but this incident has left us scared. It was God’s grace we survived,” said the pastor, who is still in the hospital. Six others also were injured.
On Wednesday and Thursday, proceedings in India’s Parliament again ground to a halt as members of the upper house demanded that Modi appear and make a statement promoting religious harmony. He came Thursday, looking grim. No statement was made.
Opposition members have expressed outrage over the now-postponed conversion event in Aligarh as well as one that happened this month in which 50 poor Muslim families attended a ceremony where they were asked to chant and throw offerings into a holy fire, then were declared converted. The Muslims later said that they were lured to the ceremony with the promise of government food ration cards. Another mass conversion is planned for Feb. 6.
Ram Madhav, the general secretary of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said that the ongoing debate over religious conversions — and whether the country needs a national law to stop forced or coerced conversions — is being fomented by political opponents who are deliberately trying to sabotage Modi’s efforts to reform the country’s economy.
“Why drag the prime minister into this?” he asked. “Modi wants to push through important economic bills, and these people just want to derail his agenda.”
This week in Aligarh, Dass and about 200 Christians gathered at a local banquet hall for the yearly Christmas pageant. As volunteers prepared a traditional Indian dinner of dal, rice and grilled bread, guests watched the program, which featured costumed teens dressed as Mary and Joseph singing onstage with angels in white gowns and the Three Wise Men in foil crowns. Dass said that despite the ongoing celebrations, many Christians are afraid and that pastors have asked them to keep their holiday observances subdued.
“We have interfered in their agenda, so surely they will also try and disrupt our Christmas programs,” Dass said. “Before this, we never had a problem. But you see, we just pray for them. We can do that one thing. Pray for them who persecutes you. Let God give them wisdom.”
Jalees Andrabi and Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.