November 21 (Compass) – Members of the Believers’ Church in India (BCI) in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh met peacefully Sunday, despite death and arson threats issued by Hindu extremists.
“About 20 people came for the service. This was lower than usual as some villagers were facing opposition, but at least we were able to meet without incident,” Ramesh Masih, the son of Pastor Feroz Masih, told Compass. The church meets in Masih’s house in the town of Baijnath.
On November 4, extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, assaulted the elder Masih. After beating him, they told Masih that if he and his 60 church members failed to take part in a “reconversion” ceremony on November 20, they would burn them to death.
The planned reconversion ceremony was apparently dropped due to police intervention.
In the November 16 edition of a national Hindi daily, Amar Ujala, a senior VHP member, Baldev Sood, said the VHP would not “reconvert” the BCI Christians against their will.
Police had warned VHP members that they would be held responsible for any harm done to Masih or his church members, senior police official Ravinder Singh Jamwal told Compass.
Jamwal also said all citizens had a constitutional right to practice and preach their respective religions, and Masih had the right to preach and distribute Christian tracts.
Police Inspector Sureshta Thakur of the Baijnath police station said she had warned the VHP and its supporters against taking the law into their own hands.
“There are many illiterate people in Baijnath who can easily be misled to believe that Christians are forcibly converting Hindus,” she said. “These misconceptions are the root of the problem.”
When the church asked Thakur for police protection for the worship service on November 20, however, she refused, saying, “Only the district collector has the authority to sanction police protection.”
Thakur sent two police constables to visit Masih’s house on November 19. She also tried to arrange a meeting between Masih and the six attackers named in his police complaint. All six of the attackers, however, had gone into hiding and could not be contacted.
Masih’s son said he did not want the attackers punished, but that he hoped local officials would protect the Christian minority.
He also rejected the claims of “forced” or “fraudulent” conversion made against his father, saying such false accusations are a mere pretext for attacking and harassing Christians.
“Recently, I arranged a press conference in which many of our church members said they had accepted Christianity out of their own free will, because they had been healed of their diseases,” he added.
A recent police inquiry found that Masih had not converted anyone by force or by fraudulent means.