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‘Before you kill me, first hear me’

Persecution of Christians is on the rise in India, but church members say the struggles have deepened their commitment to share the Gospel.

WICHITA, Kan. — ‘They have mouths, but cannot speak; eyes, but cannot see.”

Joseph Ghorpade shares the Bible verses he uses when he speaks to Hindus in India. (PHOTOS BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)From the safety of a kitchen table in suburban Kansas, Joseph Ghorpade reads Psalm 115 — a passage he’s found effective when sharing his Christian faith with Hindus in his native India. The psalm speaks of “idols of silver and gold,” not unlike the ornate statues that coat the monumental towers of Hindu temples, representing millions of gods and goddesses claimed by the religion.

“These words are the power of the Lord to save the dying person,” Ghorpade says, pointing to the pages of his well-worn Bible.

But sharing those words in his homeland can be dangerous.

And it’s getting worse.

A preacher-training school in southern India, associated with Churches of Christ, reports the deaths of two students and a Christian convert in the past year after beatings and stabbings by militant Hindus. Other students were charged with forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity by leaders of a village where they preached. They, alongside several converts, stood trial before a panel of judges.

The incidents are part of a rising tide of persecution against non-Hindus, says Will Stark of International Christian Concern, a watchdog and advocacy group for Christ-followers worldwide. He cites data from Open Doors USA, another advocacy group, that has catalogued 410 incidents of persecution in India so far this year — already more than double the number recorded in all of 2012.

Statues adorn the elaborate gopuran, or tower, of a Hindu temple in Chennai, India.

The U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report also shows growing violence toward Christians and Muslims.

In the country’s 2014 election, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, won the majority of seats in parliament. The party often is described as “Hindu nationalist,” prizing Indian culture over Western influences.

Though the BJP does not promote or endorse the actions of militant Hindus, Stark says that some militants have interpreted the party’s rise to power to mean “we have an ideological ally, and we’re going to have more leeway to conduct the operations we want to conduct.”

PRAYER REQUEST OR AMBUSH?
Ghorpade says he’s been threatened for his faith. Once, on his way to visit Christians in a village, he was warned that men were waiting there to douse him with kerosene and burn him. He didn’t go.

“If we don’t carry the cross of salvation to them, who else will do that?”

Occasionally, he receives plaintive phone calls asking him to “come pray for my wife; she’s dying.” That could be a setup for an ambush, he says, so he replies, “Take her to the hospital at once, and I’ll pray from here.”

But the minister, who recently returned to full-time evangelism and preacher training after working for the Indian government, knows that these simple precautions can’t guarantee his safety as he preaches in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad and surrounding villages.

“If we don’t carry the cross of salvation to them, who else will do that?” asks Ghorpade, who came to Wichita to visit his son and daughter-in-law, who live here. He also spoke to the congregation they attend, the West Douglas Church of Christ.

Every village in his homeland must have a chance to hear the Gospel, Ghorpade says. His message to those who wish him harm: “Before you kill me, first hear me.”
‘THERE ARE NO RICE CHRISTIANS!’
In India, the decision to become a Christian isn’t taken lightly, says Dr. Mani Pagidipalli, a surgeon and evangelist who works with Churches of Christ in India’s southern Andhra Pradesh state and other locales — a separate ministry from Ghorpade’s work.

Pagidipalli“There are no rice Christians!” Pagidipalli insists. “Just because there are a lot of benevolent activities going on in India, that does not mean people are going to change their religion for a bag of rice and then die for their faith. That doesn’t make any sense!”

In addition to the three recent deaths, the Christians Pagidipalli works with have endured threats, beatings and poisonings — sometimes by their own families. In one village, a woman’s husband and son poured pesticide down her throat after she worshiped with a group of Christians. She survived, but feels pain — physical and emotional — every time she eats, Pagidipalli says.

Leaving Hinduism involves more than risking physical harm, he adds. College admission, scholarships, grants, jobs and social services all are tied to the Hindu faith.

“All the converts who are leaving Hinduism,” Pagidipalli says, “are forced to leave every single one of the benefits that come along with being a Hindu.”
‘BUYING SOULS’
Increasingly, militant Hindus use social media to spread — and fuel — anger against Christians. They post videos of televangelists such as Benny Hinn and decry the “prosperity gospel” advocated by ministers who promise physical, worldly blessings to Christ followers.

“There is this narrative of Christians coming in and buying souls,” Stark says, and in some cases it’s “not necessarily untrue.”

He recommends that Christians in India be honest in their dealings with Hindus — presenting Christ not by promising financial gain or threatening condemnation, but by following the example of the apostle Paul in Acts 17. When he journeyed to polytheistic Athens, Paul told the Greeks there about the “unknown god” for whom they had built an altar.
“…confronting this issue of religious intolerance is going to take a multi-faith effort.”
“There are a lot of Hindus who do believe in a multi-faith India,” Stark adds. “More people are starting to speak out.”

When attacks against non-Hindus happen, Hindu intellectuals and celebrities decry the violence. A campaign of tolerance among Indians, using the hashtag #notinmyname, is spreading across social media.

In India, “confronting this issue of religious intolerance is going to take a multi-faith effort,” Stark says.

‘ALL OF INDIA WOULD BE CHRISTIAN’
In addition to preaching and training ministers, Pagidipalli and the Christians he works with offer services to people of all faiths in their communities — clean water projects, a free medical clinic, care for orphans and widows and disaster relief. Likewise, Ghorpade and his coworkers minister to those rejected by India’s caste system — including colonies of people suffering from leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.

In serving, Pagidipalli says, he and his fellow believers are trying to live up to the words attributed to one of their nation’s greatest heroes, Mahatma Gandhi: “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

Meanwhile, Indian Christians pray continually for those who persecute them, Pagidipalli says, that they might “fully see Christ and understand what a blessing Christian life is.”

And it is a blessing, he says, despite the persecution its followers endure.

Among Christians in India, “there are concerns and unanswered — never going to be answered — questions while on earth, but we press on with deepest faith in the Lord.

“One thing is absolutely clear: there is no other way to heaven but through Jesus. None of our students or brethren are seeking another way, an easier way, to heaven.

“If Jesus, his apostles and many early Christians were killed for their faith, why should we expect an easier way?”

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