Berating and slapping two pastors into signing an apology letter before police, Hindu extremists stopped a planned three-day gospel meeting in Chhattisgarh state, India minutes before it was to begin, sources said.
Hindu nationalists beat pastor Vijay Jogi and pastor Santosh Rao minutes before the start of the first meeting, where about 1,000 people had gathered at the Railway Grounds in Charoda, Durg District on Nov. 16, pastor Amos James told Morning Star News.
"Pastor Vijay Jogi and Pastor Santosh Rao were receiving the people at the entrance," Pastor James said. "Suddenly a mob of 70 Hindu Dharm Sena and Bajrang Dal activists gheraoed [encircled] the entrance, and Pastor Jogi and Pastor Rao were beaten and summoned to the police station."
Pastor Jogi told Morning Star News the hard-line Hindus were shouting, "Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram[Hail lord Ram]."
"The activists slapped Pastor Santosh Rao thrice and beat us both," Pastor Jogi said. "By then we understood that these people will not let us conduct prayers."
The 45-year-old father of two received a call from the Government Railway Police at around 6 p.m., minutes before the opening prayer. Police told him come to the police station immediately and warned him to call off the event, he said.
As in the previous 20 years, church leaders had obtained prior permission from both the railway and the railway police to conduct the event, a campaign that in past years has seen many people turn to Christ, he said. The Hindu extremists claimed organizers also needed permission from the sub-judicial magistrate.
"In the pamphlets we distributed earlier inviting people to attend the meeting, I quoted Luke chapter 7 and verses 22 and 23," Pastor Jogi said. "The Hindu activists began arguing with us, 'You are promoting blind beliefs. How can lame walk? How can deaf hear? How can you raise the dead? When your God can do all this, why are you people going to the doctors then?'
"They told me it is very wrong that I have written these lines. I said, 'I did not write these words. It's a verse taken from the Holy Bible and applies to the entire humankind."'
Pastor Jogi tried telling them that in those verses Jesus Christ was telling John the Baptist the things people had seen and heard, and they told him, "We are offended by these lines," he said.
"For which I immediately responded with apologies," he said, telling them, "If because I quoted these lines in the pamphlet, it is offending you at personal level, I apologize to you brothers. We are very sorry!"
They then questioned them about permission, and Pastor Jogi showed them the railways and Grounds Railway Police permission letter, he said. They told him they needed permission from the sub-judicial magistrate.
"For past 20 years the Railway Grounds has been the venue for gospel meetings, and like every year we only had permission from the Railways and Railway Police since this area falls under the jurisdiction of Charoda Railway Police Station," Pastor Jogi told Morning Star News.
The Hindu Dharm Sena and Bajrang Dal extremists took them to the police station, as even the Railway Police, for the first time, started questioning whether they had received permission from the sub-judicial magistrate, he said.
"The police told me to settle the matter here and stop the event immediately," Pastor Jogi said. "I was cautioned while Pastor Rao and I were in the police station that the activists are tearing and burning the banners, breaking the tube lights, chairs and dismantling the stage. The police officer told us even if he lodged a case [against the extremists], it would go strongly against us, and that even he can't help it. The police did not register an FIR."
Church leaders had made elaborate preparations to make the facilities ready for the event, but federal and state governments are against Christianity, Pastor Rao said.
"There is very little hope for Christians in a situation like this," said Pastor Rao, who in 2012 was falsely accused of forcible conversion. "In the police station, we were forced to sign a letter handwritten by the activists under the supervision of BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] worker Rajguru Ghosale. The letter said by conducting this meeting we hurt the feelings of Hindus, we sincerely apologize for it and cancelling the event. They slapped me to sign it."
In the presence of police, the Hindu extremists repeatedly badgered the pastor with questions, Pastor Jogi said, asking them, "Why are you calling Hindus to your events? Why are you conducting open gospel meetings publicly? Why are you converting Hindus?"
"Right in front of the police they warned, 'You must never go to a Hindu's house, you work among the Christians only,'" Pastor Jogi told Morning Star News. "I told them our Christian meetings and gatherings are open for all. I don't ask each person who attends the prayers whether they are a Muslim or Hindu. When we gather, it is in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ we gather, and His arms stretch out to everybody."
Christians in Charoda are living in fear and have not filed any case against the Hindu extremists or police, sources said.
Attorney Son Singh Jhali told the Christian leaders that they could take action against the extremist forces and police, but the pastors declined, he told Morning Star News.
Hindu nationalist groups have gathered several times in Charoda, plotting how to attack Christians, a source who requested anonymity told Morning Star News. Local BJP leaders supply alcohol to youth and instigate them to attack Christians in the state, the source said.
"My daughters, ages 13 and 5, ask me, 'Why is there so much opposition to the gospel, Dad? Why do they hate Jesus? They hate us because we are Christians?'" Pastor Jogi said with tears in his eyes. "I tell them, 'They may hate Him, but the Lord still loves them. And, we must love everyone just as our Lord is loving us.'"
The pastors prayed after the forced cancellation of the gospel event.
"We will conduct the gospel meetings again in May. We are not giving up this time. With permissions from all the authorities and government officials, we will conduct the meetings," Pastor Jogi said. "The activists are following me wherever I go. I know there is threat to my life. But I have dedicated my life fully to my Lord's work, and I will be at it till my last breath."
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, the hostile tone of his National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist 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.