JUSTICE WAS SERVED LAST week in an Indian courtroom when the ringleader of a Hindu mob that burned to death a Christian missionary and his two young sons received a death sentence. Twelve others were jailed for life.
Australian missionary Graham Staines had worked among lepers in India from 1965 until 1999 and was beloved by many-but not by Dara Singh, leader of a militant Hindu cult. The Indian court found Mr. Singh and the 12 followers guilty of burning to death Mr. Staines, 57, and his sons Philip, 11, and Timothy, 7. The three were sleeping in their jeep outside a church when the mob torched the vehicle and brandished their axes to keep the father and his boys from escaping.
Mr. Singh and the others said they would appeal the sentencing; if his appeal fails, he will be hanged. Christians make up about 2 percent of the Indian population but are seen as a threat by Hindu nationalists who don't like the way missionaries are setting up educational and health facilities in remote areas and telling Dalits ("untouchables") that Christ loves them.
The Hindustan Times quoted Mahendra Hembram, one of the killers sentenced to life imprisonment, as saying, "After hearing so many things about the Christians, we decided to kill the Christians." He complained about the "corruption of native culture" by missionaries, and he's right: The untouchables are slightly higher than cockroaches in native culture, but Christians touch them and treat them as human beings made in God's image.
Indian Christians are concerned about violence against them but also about the Bharatiya Janata Party's push for laws that subject pastors involved in conversions to jail sentences. The BJP, led by Hindu nationalists, controls the central government and holds power in many of India's 28 states, several of which have anti-conversion laws.
Those laws seem strange to anyone who knows the Indian constitution: According to its Article 25, an Indian citizen has the right to embrace any faith and practice any religion in the way its Scriptures demand. But Article 25 has an elastic clause: Indian government officials can say no to any religious ceremony that creates a problem in health, public order, or morality. For example, the government can reasonably restrict church activities during a cholera epidemic, or can forbid temple prostitutes.
Some BJP leaders are using the elastic clause to claim that conversion based on "allurement"-connecting any material benefit to conversion-threatens public morality. Hindu militants cry "allurement" when untouchables previously restricted to dirty work have more job opportunities following conversion. Regulations in one large state, Tamil Nadu, now require a priest or minister to file a form regarding any converted person that gives the "occupation and monthly income of the person converted."
Some journalists have stressed the irony of government officials purportedly protecting Dalits from conversion pressure. P. Radhakrishnan wrote in a major daily newspaper, The Hindu, "When the state has hardly any concern for [Dalits], and they are still victims of untouchability and social ostracism, why should it be a stumbling block to their regeneration with the help of other religions?"
Christians are thinking through how to act as new persecution looms. Ebenezer Sunder Raj of the Indian Institute of Christian Management told WORLD that Christians should avoid mass baptism ceremonies that upset Hindus. Victor Manoah, pastor of Zion Church within the Church of South India denomination, said it would be hard to avoid the "very difficult days" that are looming, particularly if the BJP is successful in parliamentary elections next April. He hoped that the American church would "raise your voice" in defense of religious liberty in India.