Caste Aside: India's Christians Forced to Face Virus

April 16, 2020

The street was a sea of debris. To any passerby, it would've looked like a bomb had exploded. In the shadow of jagged buildings, where entire walls had come tumbling down, the ground was a pile of rubble, bricks, and shattered glass. The riots are over -- for now. But in Delhi, where the mosques are still charred and smeared with blood, no one is under any illusions. Even in lockdown, there is persecution around every corner.

For any country, the coronavirus is a major challenge. But for places like India, the crisis is a just another excuse to trample people. Poor families, who were already shunned and marginalized by society, are facing a virtual death sentence -- not because of the outbreak, but because the government is using the situation to block them from food and supplies. Since India ordered people inside two weeks ago, families in some villages have been completely cut off from groceries, medicine, and other essentials. "We've been locked up here, like prisoners," a pregnant mom nearly cried. "We live near a milk factory, and there is not a drop of milk for my children to drink. We are called dirty, and they say we spread the disease." But the disease is the least of her worries. Starvation isn't.

For Christians, the abuse has taken a different form. Open Doors' David Curry has heard from sources on the ground that the government is ramping up what he calls "cultural persecution." Christians, he warns, "are being put on the front lines with the most contagious, because they're considered expendable." In a country with just one doctor for every 1,457 Indians, the gaps in care are huge. And while Christians are usually the first to volunteer to serve, but in this crisis, the government didn't give them a choice. "They were sent," FRC's Arielle Del Turco pointed out, "because of their faith, and because they hold such a marginalized status in that society."

What's worse, David warns, is that "they're being exposed without proper care." Like a lot of organizations, his is desperately trying to get masks and other equipment into the hands of the medical workers, but still, he says, "we need to draw attention to the religious undertones of this tragedy." And in contrast to countries like the United States, where people on the front lines are treated like heroes, India's doctors, nurses, and helpers are being driven out of their apartments or attacked on the streets. After working long, harrowing shifts in the virus wards, some health workers are coming home to no home at all. "They asked us to vacate without any notice," one young physician said. "[They] said we were dirty. Most doctors are now on the streets and have nowhere to go."

Unfortunately, Arielle explained on "Washington Watch," all of this "just reflects larger societal issues in India where a lot of people are still considered unclean. And that's just the legacy of a detrimental caste system that's been really harmful for human rights. And we see Christians [fall] victim [to] this, because they are often among the lowest caste members." It's stunning when you consider that India is the world's largest "democracy." And although the state isn't necessarily responsible for all of the increased hostility and violence directed at religious minorities, it's certainly not doing anything to stop it.

Instead of stepping in to protect their citizens, they're turning a blind eye to the ticking time bomb of the Hindu nationalist movement -- which insists that "to be Indian is to be Hindu." "Obviously," Arielle said, "that leaves other religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, in a marginalized place. And... [it's] inspiring -- not just persecution from the government -- but persecution from mob violence." The reports of pastors being run over in the streets or beaten with chains are almost commonplace. At the very least, the virus has hopefully isolated them from some of the threats, but whatever relief there is will be temporary.

Their hope, like so many others', is in nations like America, whose leaders have the leverage to pressure India's government to take the persecution more seriously. "[India] does want to maintain a friendship with the United States," Arielle agreed, "so hopefully their leadership is going to be a little [more receptive to] what America has to say in terms of their human rights standards. [W]e should be encouraging our allies to share our core values. [And] one of our core values in this country is religious freedom." The coronavirus doesn't change that. If anything, it only makes our pleas more urgent.