Why the UMC took a historic stand and condemned Hindu nationalism

(RNS) — My family has lived in India for generations, practicing Christianity for as long as anyone has kept track. They worked as public servants in the civil service agencies that built the country, led medical missions that went from India all the way to Afghanistan, served as teachers for people who otherwise had no access to education and held positions as social workers in some of the nation’s harshest mines. We come from Gujarat state, where Hindus and Christians and Muslims historically lived side by side.

In 1960 my father moved to the United States, and in 1990 I became a United Methodist minister. In all of my years talking with friends and relatives from India, I have never seen the country led by leaders so radically intolerant, so full of fear of minority faiths, so contemptuous of democracy, and so dangerous to activists, journalists and other critics of the ruling party. The time of peaceful coexistence between faiths appears to be vanishing.

In addition to the appalling rise in Islamophobic policies and violence that has accompanied Narendra Modi’s rise to power (the prime minister has deployed anti-Muslim hate relentlessly in his ongoing election campaign), India has seen waves of increasing anti-Christian persecution. 

As The New York Times describes the situation: “Anti-Christian vigilantes are sweeping through villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshipers. In many cases, the police and members of India’s governing party are helping them. In church after church, the very act of worship has become dangerous.”

The cross-denominational Delhi-based United Christian Forum (UCF) reports 720 attacks in 2023 against Christians, a stark increase from 127 in 2014 when Prime Minister Modi took power; the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations documents 1,198 attacks in 2022, up from 761 in 2021; and in 2023 International Christian Concern ranked India as the third-most egregious nation on its list of “persecutors of the year.” This is a far cry from the tolerant, developing nation that most of us in the West have been led to believe it is. 

FILE- Dozens of houses lie in ruins after being vandalized and burned during ethnic clashes and rioting in Sugnu, in Manipur, India, June 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

During an intense period of ethnic conflict in the Indian state of Manipur this year, anti-Christian persecution reached a fever pitch. The Christian Kuki-Zomi minority lost more than 100 people and saw 317 of their churches destroyed. Twelve of India’s 28 states have passed laws criminalizing conversion to Christianity. 

As a Christian clergy person committed to ecumenical and interfaith work, it has become intolerable to remain silent in the face of the Modi regime’s targeted persecution of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and tribal Advasi people. 

When churches are at their best, we take what Jesus said seriously as recorded in the New Testament book of Matthew: that nations will not be judged by the wealth they accumulate or the power they wield but by the lives they protect and the communities they cause to flourish. We are guided by the mandate in the biblical book of Micah to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. 

As a member of several dedicated caucuses within the United Methodist Church, I have done what I could in moving my institution to address the deplorable situation in India. Now the UMC has taken a historic stand for justice in India. 

In recognition of growing threats to Indian Christians, more than 700 delegates at the legislative assembly of the UMC General Conference voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution condemning the ideology responsible for so much of India’s violence: Hindu ethno-nationalism. 

Over 700 delegates to the 2024 United Methodist General Conference work on church business in Charlotte, N.C., Friday May 3, 2024. (Photo by Larry McCormack, UM News)

Not to be confused with the peaceful practice of Hinduism, Hindu nationalism is a relatively recent ideology first conceived by leaders seeking to import European fascist concepts of racial purity into India. With the ascent of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu nationalism has become India’s unofficial ideology, with Modi and BJP-ruled states passing numerous laws to criminalize, marginalize and demonize the practice of other faiths, particularly Islam and Christianity.

As the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with over 5 million members domestically and 10 million internationally, the UMC’s vote constitutes a timely and urgent response.  

The United Methodist Church is saying that we will not stand by silently while people are persecuted because of their faith and their conscience. We will not stand by silently while people face threats of erasure because of state-sponsored violence in what until now has been celebrated as the largest pluralistic democracy in the world.

Christianity has played a central role in Indian movements for justice since the nation’s founding. And this resolution comes in the Christian tradition of speaking out prophetically to nations that use violence and persecution to concentrate autocratic power. While respecting the UMC’s long commitment to the separation of church and state, it also makes good on The United Methodist Book of Resolutions statement that “Scripture recognizes that faithfulness to God requires political engagement by the people of God.”

The resolution stands in solidarity with a January 2024 petition signed by more than 3,000 ecumenical Christian leaders in India who are also speaking out against the rapidly escalating state-sanctioned violations of human rights directed at religious minorities, including Christians, Muslims, Dalits and indigenous tribal peoples. It states that every form of religious and ethnic nationalism is antithetical to the good news offered to us by God. 

As Christians, the Bible commands us to offer mercy and “bind up the wounds” of those who suffer by offering food, clothing, shelter and ministries that heal. Our acts of compassion, however, must be supplemented with a sustained commitment to enact just legislative policies that directly address the root causes of human suffering.

For this reason, the resolution makes two additional demands: 1) that the United States designate India a country of particular concern, the highest warning it issues to violators of human rights and religious liberties, and 2), that individuals associated with perpetuating violence against minorities be sanctioned by the U.S. government.

In India, Prime Minister Modi’s policies and his party’s weaponization of the Hindu faith diminishes the very religion it seeks to promote. As Christians, alongside people of all faiths, we insist on a clear separation of a beautiful faith with its violent instrumentalization by the state.

(Neal Christie is the executive director of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA). He is an ordained elder and a member of the Greater NJ Conference and the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the UMC. He lives and works in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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