Sikhs against Christian conversions in Punjab, a prelude to more extremism?

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Sikhs against Christian conversions in Punjab, a prelude to more extremism?Milan (AsiaNews) – Anti-Christian extremism is spreading in India, and now includes elements within the Sikh community, who have repeatedly attacked Christians over the past few months for allegedly carrying out forced conversions.

Sikh extremists have borrowed the same playbook from the Hindu ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In Punjab, Sikh extremists have warned against the multiplication of Christian churches, accusing missionaries of carrying conversions thanks to foreign money. This echoes the positions of India’s Hindu nationalist right.

Just yesterday India’s Supreme Court ruled on the petition filed by a number of Christian associations complaining about rising violence.

The Court asked the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to gather evidence from different states within two months to assess the claim by the plea that at least 700 violent attacks took place against Christians.

Lawyers for the MHA had originally rejected the claim as "false or exaggerated”, finding no merit in the petition. In a written statement, it said that such "deceptive petitions" were "creating unrest throughout the country … perhaps for getting assistance from outside the country to meddle with the internal affairs of the nation.”

Meanwhile, anti-Christian attitudes have spread to areas and groups hitherto unaffected, most notably India’s Sikh community. In Punjab, some Sikh nationalist groups claim that some low-caste Sikhs are converting to Christianity, even if only for a few years, in order to gain economic advantages or miracle cures.

In reality, tired of being marginalised by the Indian government and the oppression of the caste system, many Dalits (so-called untouchables) “have started looking to Christianity in the hope of a dignified life and access to better education," The Print wrote back in December.

The latest act of violence took place in the Diocese of Jalandhar when a group of unidentified men attacked a Catholic church in Patti, a town in Tam Taran district located some 50 km south of Amritsar, the Sikh holy city. During the attack, a statue was vandalised and the parish priest's car was set on fire.

As a precautionary measure and an act of protest, the diocese decided to close its schools for a day. “We call upon everyone to work towards peace and harmony between all religions,” reads the message released by Bishop Agnelo Gracias, the diocese's apostolic administrator, on Wednesday.

Although the incident might appear to be marginal and isolated, or just ordinary in a country where violence against the Muslim and Christian minority is the order of the day, in fact, it can also be the prelude of new sectarian tensions and mark a further attack against Indian democracy, this, in a state, Punjab, ruled by the populist Aam Aadmi Party, not the BJP.

In view of the situation, Giani Harpreet Singh, head of the Akal Takht, the highest seat of power in Sikhism, has convened an assembly for 5 September to approve a resolution against conversions.

Such a reaction flies against the facts. Sick extremists forget that Christians represent only 2.3 per cent of India’s population, according to the 2011 census. Unfortunately, the lack of updated estimates allows extremists to engage in systematic and violent propaganda against religious minorities.

As for the so-called vote bank, the practice whereby religious minorities vote en masse for a candidate from their community of origin, it is not reflected in reality because no Christian has ever been elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly since India gained independence.

On the contrary, Christians in Punjab feel ostracised precisely because of their underrepresentation.

What is more, “They say we allure people with money, when all people look for in the Church is equality,” said Kamal Bakshi, president of the United Christian Front.

One woman who converted for the sense of belonging brought to her by the Mass, when asked if she had received offers of money to embrace Christianity, replied: “Pastors are as poor as I am. They have nothing to offer but peace."

The attack against the church in Patti, however, has set off alarm bells in the Catholic community, pushing the Diocese of Jalandhar to close all its schools as a sign of protest. The diocese also submitted a note to the local government.

For his part, Bishop Gracias urges the faithful to pray that Punjab remain what it has always been, a place of “peace and harmony between all religious groups”.

by Alessandra De Poli