Features

Under siege

India | Hindu extremists lash out at a Christian ministry that challenges caste system

Issue: "Broken promises," March 25, 2006

Eight-year-old Taranum Mohammed has traveled the road of hardship. She was born to parents suffering from leprosy, and as a result their family of five was ostracized to one of India's many leper colonies. Each day was a battle to survive until her parents discovered an orphanage that would feed, clothe, and raise their children. Taranum now lives in one of the many orphanages operated by Emmanuel Ministries-an indigenous church movement in India-and enjoys going to school and playing with her friends.

But Hindu extremists in the northern state of Rajasthan would rather see Taranum and her fellow orphans return to the poverty-stricken streets. Angered by the message of hope the ministry brings to Hinduism's lowest members of the caste system-the Dalits-and other outcasts, extremists are sending death threats, arresting ministry officials, even burning down facilities in an orchestrated wave of terror.

Emmanuel Hope Home, near the small town of Kota, has received the brunt of the attacks. The orphanage has been under siege since last month by militant Hindu groups that have infiltrated the local government and rallied the uneducated to their cause.

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After ministry leaders refused to succumb to threats and demands that the ministry cancel its February seminary graduation, Hindu hardliners wreaked havoc on Emmanuel sites across Rajasthan and surrounded the orphanage in Kota, while local government officials illegally froze the ministry's bank accounts and revoked all operating licenses.

The Hindu radicals are calling for the death of the ministry's founder, 71-year-old Bishop M.A. Thomas, and his son, Samuel Thomas. Both men operate Emmanuel Ministries from underground, and a local Hindi-language newspaper reports that militants have placed a $26,000 bounty on their heads. Three other administrators, including V.S. Thomas and R.S. Nair, are being held in jail without bond and without charge, and one of the men was beaten.

William Thomas Bray works for Hopegivers International-the humanitarian arm of Emmanuel based in Columbus, Ga.-and has been involved with the outreach in Rajasthan for 40 years. Although extremists attacked during last year's graduation events, injuring 250 people, he says the intensity and duration of this year's attacks have been alarming: "They coordinated a public demonstration that was violent and intimidating and hit us in every way possible. We didn't know it was coming and that it would be a national campaign. Radicals came from all over India."

Although the constitution of India protects religious freedom, Hindu extremist groups-Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal in particular-have a strong hold in Rajasthan and believe the influence of Emmanuel Ministries in the region is disrupting the caste system. The campus near Kota serves as the state headquarters for the ministry and is home to 2,500 orphans, the main seminary, and a large church. Emmanuel operates 13 orphanages, 65 schools, and dozens of ministries to leper colonies in Rajasthan alone. The ministry targets the Dalits, or "untouchables," as well as other outcasts in the region.

The vast majority of Dalit orphans are consigned to the lowest jobs in society when abandoned, said Mr. Bray. "They are hated and despised and seen as only good for cleaning toilets, nursing jobs, handling blood, and prostitution. They are viewed as ceremonially unclean and are not even welcome into the Hindu temples."

Hopegivers is currently working with the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi to press for an immediate investigation from the central government. The local government, believed to be corrupted by militants, has issued arrest warrants for both M.A. and Samuel Thomas.

Despite a breakthrough March 13 when state police arrived at the Kota orphanage and permitted Hindu locals to bring supplies into the orphanage, the siege continues with thousands of orphans, hundreds of staff members, and eight American volunteers unwilling to abandon the property despite dwindling supplies. "They can't abandon the property. Whenever they drive Christians out of a property, they claim it for their gods. Standing firm is a big issue in orphanages in every town," Mr. Bray said.

From his office underground, M.A. Thomas writes, "I really have no idea where this will go or how this will end. But we, the believers in India, will always sing 'because He lives, I can face tomorrow.'"

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