Persecuted Christians in India are often socially boycotted in India. In practical terms, this means they are no longer allowed to buy food in the village where they live or draw water from the local well. Normally, they’re forced to travel to nearby towns or cities where persecution is less, and they’re able to access basic needs.
But because of the coronavirus pandemic that has led to a lockdown in India, these believers can no longer get their daily necessities elsewhere. We asked Open Doors’ local partners, pastor Samuel* and sister Heena*, how Christians—especially those in rural areas—are doing in the midst of this brutal pandemic and lockdown.
How is the official aid distribution organized in India?
Samuel: The government and official non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are helping on different levels. For example, they transfer some money into bank accounts of poor people, or they give some work to poor laborers. The thing is that only people who are registered can receive this kind of aid and in India there may be over 300 million unregistered people. Those people will only receive help if the government comes to their area and distributes aid to random people on the roadside.
There are enormous numbers of people on the road, by the way. Millions of workers want to go back to their home states, to attend to their fields. It’s harvest time. But with little-to-no public transport, they have to walk hundreds, sometimes more than 1,000 or 1,500 miles. As soon as there is a train, everyone wants to get on it, and it becomes overcrowded.
Is it true that Christians are being neglected in the aid distribution?
Heena: Yes. Imagine you’re a Christian family in a Hindu village. It’s very likely the villagers are socially boycotting you. You are not allowed to buy from the local shop or draw water from the local well. You will have to try to get food and other daily necessities from nearby Christians or go to villages where the opposition against Christians isn’t so strong. Now your village is in lockdown. You’ve lost your income. Aid is being distributed to the local shop or the local village committee and they won’t give you the food, not even when you have a food ration card.
Why can’t these Christians go to the police?
Samuel: It’s not easy to lodge a complaint. [Often,] the police won’t want to listen to you if you are a Christian. In fact, they can question you: “Why are you trying to convert Hindus? Are you bribing Hindus to follow your religion?” So if you go to the police or a government agency, you may experience even more persecution.”
Heena: Or the police will simply tell you to make compromises: “You have to stay in this village and live with the other villagers. Don’t follow Jesus. Just do what everybody else does.”
Do you have examples about Christians being bypassed for aid?
An Indian Christian shows where he was beaten on his back.
Heena: There are many, but here are a few we can share. We have to withhold certain details to not give away the identity of these Christians, or else they will be punished for sharing the information with us. In some cases, we have been able to help. In others, we’re still hoping to reach them soon:
1.) There was a family recently who didn’t receive help from the local village authorities. The Hindus [who led the village] said the Christians already received help from foreigners. But they were laborers who had lost their income, and nobody gave them any supplies to survive.
2.) Another family lives in a village where the government came to give food aid. These Christians were bypassed. Fortunately, one of our partners was able to give them some groceries.
3.) A disabled Christian man, Nathan*, and his family of six were also bypassed for relief. He can’t walk, but still the local people won’t give him and his family any food. The family has been opposed by the village since they came to faith.
5.) Another Christian, Gerard*, was expelled from his village and after living elsewhere for some time, he tried to return home. The village chief tries to force him to leave again. While everyone else in the village received food rations, this Christian was neglected. A local house owner has also filed a false murder accusation against him.
6.) We also received a cry for help from a family of five. The police have been threatening them because they are Christians and do ministry. Now everyone in their village received relief aid, except for the Christian families.
7.) A day laborer who lives on his daily wages, Adrian*, told us he lives in a plastic hut. Everybody around him received food to survive except for him—because of his faith in Jesus.
8.) An older widow, Davina*, and nine other family members were neglected during a food distribution in her village. Fortunately, our partners were able to provide for her.
These are just a few examples. The lockdowns have already cut off vulnerable persecuted Christians. Even if the government comes to their village, it’s not certain they will receive aid. In many cases, they are dependent on food deliveries from Christians.
So, in many places there’s extra persecution. But what about “ordinary persecution,” such as harassment and beatings? Is this happening more or less?
Samuel: I just received a message from a group of Christians. They were chased out of their homes and their houses were destroyed. Now they are building new houses on the land of one of them. But yesterday Hindu fundamentalists came and destroyed the houses again. The pastor and other Christians were severely wounded during a beating. We are hoping we can reach them to provide some help.
Heena: There are other incidents, too. News travels slower than before because of all the lockdowns. So, we’re still analyzing, but there seem to be more persecution incidents than before.
How do you go from village from village to deliver relief aid? What if you spread the virus this way?
Samuel: There’s always an element of risk, but we are trying to minimize it. We have trained all local partners, so they are aware of hygiene instructions. We have a long list of dos and don’ts.
Do you also give health and hygiene advice to the people we try to help?
Heena: Yes, but it’s limited. Social distancing is very hard in India. Often ten or more people live in one room—not in a house, but a room! And all people in a certain block may use the same toilet. Children often just have one set of clothing and sometimes only wear shorts. It’s very difficult to help them understand they should wear a scarf or face mask. Many people don’t have access to clean water to take a shower or bath, and for many, soap is a luxury they cannot afford. In India, it’s very difficult to follow all the hygiene instructions.”
Are you only helping Christians?
Samuel: Our primary target group are persecuted Christians, especially those who are being neglected by the official relief channels. However, sometimes we receive requests from non-Christians and we are compelled to help them too. But the vast majority of people who receive our aid are persecuted Christians.
To end on a positive note, do you also have examples of God providing for Christians in need?
Samuel: Yes. There was one pastor in desperate need. He couldn’t provide for his family anymore and he didn’t want to die slowly. He and his wife decided to commit suicide with their family. Then one of our partners came to bring food. This was an amazing provision by the Lord.
You know, India has been divided in zones. Some areas are colored red and here there’s very little movement of people allowed. Think about crowded cities like New Delhi, Agra, Nagpur and Mumbai. Nobody can go out or in and many roads are blocked. But other areas are freer. Here it’s possible for us to do relief work. God has opened doors for us to reach Christians most in need. We have already helped over 1,000 families and are preparing to help 7,000 more. Through God’s grace, and through the prayers and gifts of our supporters, we can help many Christians like this pastor’s family.”
Open Doors works through local church partners to help persecuted Christians in India with urgent aid and relief, persecution preparedness training and local advocacy. Since the lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 crisis, we have stepped up our food aid and relief programs. We have given around 1,000 families vital food and other supplies to survive for at least a month and are preparing to help 7,000 families more.
*Names and identities have been disguised to protect security.