NEW DELHI — Having spent a month in jail on baseless charges before his release on bail, Pastor R. Kirubendran was baffled at hostilities from police, media and villagers after serving a community in northern India without problem for several years.
An explanation likely lies in the pattern of false accusations by Hindu extremists, followed by church closures, in Ghazipur District, Uttar Pradesh state where he and his wife served.
Accused of forcible conversion and insulting religion, Pastor Kirubendran was released on May 24 after four failed attempts to secure bail. His wife, Manju Tiruvendram, and 18-month-old daughter spent 13 days in jail before being released on bail on May 6.
Pastor Kirubendran said he was shocked and puzzled at the charges after serving in the town of Kasimabad for six years without incident.
“Everything was very smooth and cordial, until suddenly, that Sunday [April 23] the crowd was hurling accusations on us,” he told Morning Star News. “The villagers had never opposed us since the time we started worshipping here till now.”
Kirubendran and Tiruvendram have provided free education for the village since 2017, with 60 children attending. Holding classes Monday to Saturday for two hours, they taught according to the area school’s syllabus.
“I wanted to educate them,” Pastor Kirubendran said. “Families who have money send their children to coaching classes by paying hefty fees. What about the poor children? My wife and I had a lot of burden for the education of the poor children, so we wanted to teach them.”
They also provided guidance and other help to villagers, his wife said.
“We have no money, so we could not help them financially, but we advised them whenever they asked for it, and we also stood by them; if they had to take someone to the hospital in emergency, we went with them,” Tiruvendram said.
About 90 people attended the church, but resuming services now is not possible, the pastor said.
“The person from whom we had rented the house has blocked the entrance of the church with a bamboo mesh,” Pastor Kirubendran said. “Those who have complained against us, they are high-caste people. They are the rich and affluent. My life can get in danger, I must stay safe and keep a low profile. We will have to prove that we are not guilty but are innocent.”
Attacks every week
Police and villagers descended on the family after services had ended on April 23 — as has happened to churches throughout the district, said attorney and rights activist Dinanath Jaiswar.
“In the month of April, churches were attacked in Ghazipur District every Sunday,” Jaiswar told Morning Star News. “Local right-wing groups identified each church in the district and prepared a list. According to the list, they attacked churches and, levying false allegation of forced conversion, sent the pastors to jail. In this way, they have been successful in shutting down the churches in the district.”
The number of incidents in Uttar Pradesh rose steeply following the implementation of the state law against forcible or fraudulent conversion. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, originated as Ordinance 2020 that came into effect on Nov. 27, 2020.
From December 2020 through May, 234 people have been arrested and jailed under the statute, none convicted, Jaiswal said, and this year he has recorded 115 anti-Christian incidents in Uttar Pradesh from January until June.
Charged and jailed
“We came to north India with a lot of burden to serve the Lord, but landed up in jail despite doing nothing wrong,” said Tiruvendram, 32, of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, who came with her now 33-year-old husband to Kasimabad six years ago.
Kasimabad police arrested the couple, their daughter and a female church member soon after Sunday worship in a rented accommodation in Barapur village, a little more than a mile from their home.
A group of 10 mainly high-caste Hindus along with about 20 policemen in four vehicles arrived at the site of their Indian Pentecostal Church.
One of the group members asked who led worship, and as soon as Pastor Kirubendran answered, they began to hurl accusations of forcible conversion at him and his church, he said. Officers asked the Christians about their activities and organization, and they replied that they met there for prayer, worship and also taught underprivileged children.
The crowd continued to assert that the couple moved from Coimbatore to forcefully convert the villagers…