Berating and slapping a pastor for reading the Bible instead of Hindu texts, police in Uttar Pradesh state, India last month detained six Christians under "unlawful assembly" laws for worshiping together, sources said.
After traveling from Etah village to a church in nearby Pujaripurvah, the six Christians were detained for nine days before they were granted bail by Bahriach District's Second Class Judicial Magistrate Court on July 5.
Police on June 25 arrived at the worship service in Pujaripurvah village and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and devotionals. Station House Officer (SHO) Aravind Kumar of Nanpara demanded that Pastor Asha Ram Sahni hand over literature he suspected was used to convert people, the church leader said.
When Pastor Sahni showed him copies of the New Testament and gospel tracts, Kumar said, "Not this 'thing,' give us the material with which you do conversions."
Kumar further badgered him, saying, "You are paid eight to 10 lakhs [US$12,420 to US$15,520] for converting people," the pastor said.
"I told the officer, 'Sir, if I'm paid such hefty amounts, why would I live in a mud house? I follow Jesus Christ with all my heart, I serve Christ, I share the gospel, but I never forcefully converted anyone. I don't have any other books,'" he said.
The prior Sunday, relatives of village President Raj Kumar took photographs of Bibles and gospel tracts and complained to police about the church, Pastor Sahni told Morning Star News. The police harassment began the following Sunday, with SHO Kumar eventually ordering him to write down the names of everyone who attended worship, he said. On June 27, the officer ordered the 38-year-old pastor and five others to the police station, where they were taken into custody.
Police charged the six Christians with knowingly joining or continuing in any assembly of five or more persons after being commanded to disperse (Section 151 of the Indian Penal Code).
While in custody, SHO Kumar asked Pastor Sahni what his favorite part of the Bible was, the pastor said. He answered Matt. 7:7-11, which he read to him, explaining that a child asking for a fish is not given a snake, and how much more the Father in heaven cares for His children.
"He started slapping me and asked, 'Why do you read only Naya Niyam [the New Testament]? Why not Ram Charit Manas and Mahabharat? There are many holy books, why did you not read them?'" Pastor Sahni said. "He slapped me again."
Ram Charit Manas is a 16th century Hindu devotional classic, and Mahabharat is an ancient Sanskrit epic tale.
One of the Christians arrested, identified only as 35-year-old Gurudeen, said that SHO Kumar accused him of forcible conversion in the majority-Hindu country where eating beef is outlawed in many states, telling him, "You instigate people and convert them to Christianity, and you consume beef too. You will spend your life in jail."
"I don't do any such thing. I only believe in Jesus Christ. Christ has done many wondrous things in my life. Sir, I did not do anything that I have to be jailed," Gurudeen told him. He told Morning Star News, "He kept tormenting, saying 'I will bring your wife and put her to shame.'"
For four days during Gurudeen's incarceration, the inspector sent male and female police officers to his house to harass his wife, he said.
Also jailed was Lal Bihari Verma 35; Ram Naresh 35; Gobrey Nishad, 45; and Chote Lal, 45.
Nanpara Police SHO Kumar avoided Morning Star News questioning about accusations that he harassed the Christians at a legal assembly and slapped the pastor.
"We arrested them based on the complaint received from the villagers, and lodged an FIR [First Information Report] charging them under Indian Penal Code section 151," he said. "It's about dispersing illegal assemblies."
Asked if he had any evidence against the Christians and could prove the charges in court, Kumar said, "They vandalized an idol of a Hindu goddess. I received a video of it."
Attorney Pankaj Pathak, who represented the Christians in court, said there was no truth to the accusations.
"The court, after examining the statements given by the witnesses of the village, who clarified that there was no truth in the accusations, decided to grant the bail to all of the six accused," Pathak said. "The police did not mention about any video before the court. The Christians were framed on false charges."
One of the accused Christians, who requested anonymity, said they have been falsely accused.
"The SHO himself had cooked up this tale of vandalizing idols," he said. "We never committed any such act. We only gather and pray as church or families at our own houses peacefully, and they labelled it as 'unlawful.'"
Verma, one of those detained, told Morning Star News that opposition to the growth of Christianity has been growing in his native Etah village the past three months.
"The villagers respected my belief and even requested us to pray for their illnesses and problems since I accepted Christ as my personal Savior three years ago," Verma said. "There have been divisional politics and conspiracies cooking in the village for three months as the Christians are growing in numbers. The same people who earlier told us we can assemble and pray as church are now opposing us."
In May and June, traditionally regarded as wedding season in rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states, Christians who abstain from the accompanying alcohol and rituals that involve idol worship face severe opposition from villagers.
While police were harassing the Christians in Pujaripurvah on June 25, police arrived at their native village of Etah of Nanpara Mandal, Bahriach District, and harassed their families worshipping at a house there, sources said.
Gurudeen was worshipping with the women in Etah when police arrived with former village head Ram Kumar Verma, he said.
"Police snatched away the Bible in my hands, and Ram Kumar Verma started using foul language against me, my wife and children," he said. "He was crossing the limits. The police did not stop him."
Police warned the Christians not to assemble for worship in the village and told the women to send their husbands to the police station.
While in custody at the Nanpara Police Station, SHO Kumar demanded security deposits of 1,900 rupees from Nishad (US$30) and 2,900 rupees (US$45) from Lal Bihari Verma, sources said.
"He did not issue any receipt for the sum collected," said Luvkush Verma, Lal Bihari Verma's nephew. "I approached him several times in vain, but he did not return the amounts."
The SHO also took 4,000 rupees (US$62) from Sri Ramathrey, a relative of Pastor Sahni, saying, "Christian worship is crime. If you pay the amount, there won't be charges against you," the pastor told Morning Star News.
Lallan Prasad, a relative of Gurudeen, said Kumar is threatening to re-arrest the Christians on charges of destroying, damaging and defiling a place of worship or sacred object with intent to insult the religion of any class of persons (Section 295), punishable by two years in prison, a fine or both. Kumar is also threatening to re-arrest them on charges of circulating false statements with intent to cause mutiny or offense against the public peace (Section 505), punishable by imprisonment of three years, a fine or both, he said.
"If they don't pay him 5,000 rupees [US$77] each, he said there would be charges against them again," Prasad told Morning Star News. "I told the officer my relatives are poor people, they have nothing; he is working very hard to bring up his children, please don't frame him up."
On Thursday (July 20), Kumar called Lal Bihari Verma and issued a threat, saying, "Whatever happened was just a trailer, and the picture [movie] is still remaining [to come]," Verma said.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, the hostile tone of his National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against non-Hindus has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 15th on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2017 World Watch List of the countries where Christians experience the most persecution.