A section of church-going Christians in Belagavi are alarmed by a so-called ‘friendly warning’ by the Belagavi police against conducting prayer meetings. The police action appears ill-motivated to many observers considering the insecurities in the Christian community over a string of recent attacks on them by militant Hindutva groups. Instead of going after those threatening law and order, the police have decided to ask Christians to lay low.
“A few pastors were called and told to not conduct prayers saying right wing groups may attack them and the police will not be able to give them protection,” Pastor T Thomas told TNM. “It is not banned because they have not given anything in writing, but they say it is to maintain communal harmony. In Camp and Tilakwadi police station jurisdictions, where Pastor Cherian was attacked, the police told the pastors that if you have your own church buildings, you can conduct prayer meetings but do not hold them in rented buildings or private houses,” he added.
Interestingly, Christians groups have been told to avoid meetings until the end of the Winter Session of the Karnataka Assembly, scheduled to be held in Belagavi. This session, which will be held from December 13 to 24, is expected to feature the controversial anti-conversion Bill. Further enquiries led TNM to the fact that more than 25 pastors in the district have been approached by the police and asked to avoid prayer meetings.
Over the last few months, several Hindutva groups including Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal have been protesting against what they call ‘forced conversion’ by Christian pastors in several parts of the state. TNM has earlier reported how these protests are not sporadic and are part of a bigger plan to bring in a law that bans conversion.
Pastor Thomas says that most of the owners of the buildings that used to be rented for prayer meetings have been told to not give space for prayer meetings. A few were threatened by the right-wing groups and others were ‘advised’ by the police.
Most of the pastors associated with the Belgaum Pastor and Christian Leaders’ Association in Belagavi have been conducting prayer sessions in rented halls since they do not have a church. And now they are on the radar of Hindutva organisations like the Sri Rama Sene.
“We have around 20 believers attending our Sunday prayers. Most of them are daily wage earners and are very scared of getting into any trouble. In Belagavi, only protestants are being targeted because unlike Catholics, they are not very influential,” another pastor who chose to remain anonymous told TNM.
Pastor Benny Paul Saturi said that the police came to places of worship, even private residences where prayers were being held and some other pastors were called to the police station as well. “They were told that till the Winter Session is over, do not meet. Because we do not know when these right wing groups will come and create problems for you. So they ‘advised’ the pastors to be safe and not hold meetings in rented places,” he said. Pastor Benny leads a congregation of around 150 to 200 people attending Sunday prayers. He said that around 30 to 40 pastors across Belagavi are affiliated with the Full Gospel church and most of them are now conducting online prayers.
“They (rightwing activists) barge into churches, break things, attack people, but finally cases are booked against pastors accusing them of forced conversion. Many are now conducting prayer meetings on Zoom calls. We do not want to give them a chance,” said Pastor Thomas. “Belagavi is being focussed on these activities because the Winter Session will be held here and they want to push for an anti-conversion Bill in the Assembly session,” he added.
The right-wing organisations had prepared a draft with what they believe a strong ‘anti-conversion’ Bill should have, and submitted the same to the Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai. A delegation of Hindu seers, along with Sri Rama Sene’s infamous president Pramod Muthalik, met the CM and reiterated the demand for a law at the earliest. But there is still apprehension on whether it will be tabled in the upcoming session of the Assembly. “Our leaders have gotten the CM’s assurance. But we cannot just rely on that and wait endlessly,” a Sri Rama Sene member told TNM. “We want to highlight the situation on the ground in Belagavi so we can exert pressure when the session is held here,” he added.
Over the last two weeks, many hall owners have refused to rent space in the fear of damage to their property, said Pastor Benny. “Pramod Muthalik is from the same area so he and Sri Rama Sene are very active here,” he added.
TNM spoke to a few owners of such halls who confirmed that they have told the pastors that for the time being, they do not want prayers conducted in their properties. Jotiba Jadhav, who is a member of the Theosophical Society in Belagavi and rents a hall for Sunday prayers told TNM that while he has offered to give a written statement to the police that he has no problem renting the hall for prayers, several other owners are worried because of the damage they may incur. “Just a few residents in Maratha Colony had a problem. The police, instead of sorting out the issues and giving protection to the halls, have been asking hall owners to not rent out to Pastors, and put CCTV cameras,” he said.
The Inspector of the Camp Police Station in Belagavi also confirmed to TNM that there is a fear that the right wing groups may attack churches. “Not just in Camp Police Station but in two or three other jurisdictions also. Based on the incident that took place in Shivaji Colony two weeks ago, we thought the others should be safe and nothing untoward should happen to them,” he said.
“So we have asked them to install cameras in and around churches. We have also asked them to not bring people from other castes to the prayers because they will be accused of converting them. We also asked them to conduct meetings only in Churches, not in rented halls or houses. We have told them to be careful till the winter session of the Assembly,” he told TNM.
On Wednesday, a delegation of Bishops and Christian leaders led by Reverend Nandu Kumar, and Reverend Derek Fernandes met the Belagavi Police Commissioner and submitted a memorandum, seeking protection. The memorandum copy that TNM accessed read, “This is a dangerous development wherein it appears that instead of giving protection to the Christians we are asked to stop all our activities because of the threats posed by certain sections of people in the society. We would personally feel instead of restraining the priests and pastors from praying, the miscreants should be booked and action taken. All that is happening in these prayer halls is within the framework of the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, with the clamour growing for an ‘anti-conversion’ law by right-wing organisations and even a few BJP leaders, and the state government making its intent to bring in a law on the line of other states like Uttar Pradesh in the upcoming Assembly session, Christians in Belagavi fear further persecution with Hindu organisations further bolstered by the BJP government.