By Craig Macartney. Reprinted with permission from Faith Today, May/June 2017.
Compassion International, a leading evangelistic child sponsorship organization, has closed their entire network of programs in India. As of March 15, 2017, after 48 years in India, Compassion centres ran out of funds because the Indian government banned the centres from receiving any foreign monies – cutting off support for 145,000 children and their families. Observers say the move is part of a growing wave of nationalism spurring a sharp increase in Christian persecution.
Barry Slauenwhite, president of Compassion Canada (www.Compassion.ca), says their challenges began "about a year ago, when the government started cracking down on international NGOs. The new government apparently has a desire to create more of a Hindu state for India. They are trying to restrict the growth of Christianity, as well as other things."
Several years ago, the Indian government passed a law requiring organizations to have government permission to receive foreign funding. "There are over 11,000 groups already targeted and restricted," Slauenwhite says from his office in London, Ont. "Compassion is the largest NGO working with children in India. That gets us on the radar. The fact that we are overtly Christian and work with churches gets us on the radar as well."
Slauenwhite says they could have avoided most of the issues if Compassion didn’t make Christ so central in their programs. He says many other child sponsorship programs haven’t been affected so far because they are not evangelical and don’t work through local churches.
"Every piece of the Compassion module is based in a local church. We use the Bible for our foundation for holistic child development," he states. "What the government is saying, in a nutshell, is they accuse us of paying children to convert to Christianity. They look at the monthly sponsorship money and they assume that money is used to coerce children and their families to become Christians."
It’s a charge Slauenwhite says is false. Compassion believes coerced conversions are not true conversions and don’t genuinely lead people to Jesus.
"We never coerce anyone to become a Christian. What is the point of that? It is futile. [A child’s faith background] is not a criterion to register for the Compassion program. In fact, we help more non-Christian children, by far."
Asked if children and families are genuinely turning to Christ through Compassion’s program, Slauenwhite chuckles. "Oh, absolutely," he says, "by the thousands. That’s the problem."
The problem extends beyond the government and even beyond India. The 2017 World Watch List from the ministry Open Doors reported five of the six countries with the sharpest increase in persecution are in South or Southeast Asia. The list ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the worst persecution.
The five Asian countries flagged for significant increases include India, Bangladesh, Laos, Bhutan and Vietnam. India rose to number 15 on the list, just behind Saudi Arabia.
"Christian organizations know, in Southeast Asia especially, right now you need to keep things undercover to be able to carry out mission work," explains Monica Ratra, a communications specialist with Open Doors Canada (www.OpenDoorsCa.org). Open Doors was founded by Brother Andrew, the world-renowned missionary to the Soviet Union. It is the oldest ministry secretly working in countries where Christians are persecuted.
Ratra is Indian. She says the nationalism fuelling these crackdowns has been growing slowly, but picked up in recent years. "Being Indian is associated with being Hindu. So if you convert, you are considered a traitor and to be anti-India. Even Muslims are considered to be outsiders. Anyone who is not a Hindu is considered an outsider."
The election of the Narendra Modi government in 2014 put hardline Hindu nationalist parties in power. Violence against Christians increased sharply since then. "It is growing in terms of blatant attacks on pastors and laypeople," says Ratra. "Women are being targeted, so there are more rapes taking place. They target the weaker sections in the Christian community so the others are scared into not evangelizing."
Ratra says it varies widely between regions. Urban areas avoid the worst of it, while people in small villages, who can’t speak out, face the worst attacks.
"Each village has maybe a few Christians. Pastors looking after a flock of 30 or 40 families [from nearby villages] are targeted. Their houses are maybe set on fire or they are stoned, or if the women are going to the market, they are abused or kidnapped. That is happening much more blatantly now than it used to."
Another ministry that has witnessed the growing nationalism is Partners International (PartnersInternational.ca), which has offices in Brampton, Ont. They help indigenous Christian ministries in 56 developing countries forge healthy partnerships with Western ministries.
Indian believers face a lot of problems from local government officials, according to an Indian ministry partner who requested anonymity to protect his safety. He said local village leadership often shut down events and post notices saying pastors and evangelists are not welcome in the village.
"They put the notice in the village, and pastors or evangelists who go are being beaten up. In some villages the believers are not given water or they are not given a place to bury their dead."
When Christians try to file complaints, he says their attackers bribe the police to destroy the report.
"On many occasions the pastors do not have proof of the attack. So immediately the other people fabricate some witnesses and file a case against the pastor."
While he says the government isn’t openly encouraging attacks, he says they support them by their silence. They don’t address them in the media or acknowledge them at all.
Faith Today spoke with a senior leader from another organization that does significant work in India. The source spoke on condition of anonymity to minimize the risk of repercussions. So far the organization has flown under the radar, but the source shared another way the government is restricting mission work.
"I personally know two people who arrived in India and were turned back – one on a tourist visa and another on a business visa. They had a functioning business in India, but they were told, ‘You are here to do missionary work.’ There is no appeal or anything."
Both situations were in the past year, one happening only a few months ago. One of the people turned back was a worker with the organization who has lived in India for nearly two decades.
The organization has also seen a rise in violence. While none of their facilities have been attacked, churches associated with their work have.
Kevin McKay, president of Partners International Canada, says they have been watching the nationalist trend emerge throughout the region. In Bangladesh one of their partners was warned by the police to suspend their meetings. They had a convert murdered in Bangladesh and another murdered in India.
"They were going into the community and talking about their faith," he says. "These are the things our workers face on the ground. We had a worker go missing two years ago in Pakistan. He was held by the Taliban for about six weeks. We had a ministry partner who was a former Taliban and he was able to broker the release of that worker."
Despite the building pressure McKay is confident the gospel will continue going forth.
"These guys are living on the tip of the sword, yet it emboldens them further. They are all in. Come war, famine, persecution or having team members killed – very rarely have I had someone call me and say, ‘I’m done.’"
He says Canadian believers need to be more informed about the reality facing Christians around the world. "What we believe in North America and the reality of what is being lived out in most of the world are two different things. Most Christians living around the world face persecution on a daily basis."
Everyone Faith Today spoke to asked Canadian Christians to pray for their brothers and sisters overseas.
"Prayer needs to be not only for protection of the Christians," McKay says. "Pray that people who are agents of spiritual darkness are saved from that. This is the way our partners look at this on the ground. The people perpetrating this are victims of spiritual darkness."
Slauenwhite emphasizes God is not surprised by these challenges. He says God may still turn the hearts of government officials to reopen the door. "This is a spiritual battle and spiritual battles are won on our knees. My foremost request is that believers will be very strategic and deliberate in their prayers. Pray that God will turn the hearts of government leaders around. Prayer is the number one response. Then, if there are other Christian organizations that are not targeted, throw your support behind those ministries."
Slauenwhite says he is heartbroken as Compassion leaves India. It’s personal because his family sponsors children in India. Yet he reminds sponsors that their efforts have not been in vain.
"What they have invested will live on forever because it is a spiritual investment."
While the opposition grows, the gospel continues to spread through the faithful work of indigenous Christians. Both Partners International and Compassion say their partner churches are going above and beyond to continue serving the affected children and communities.
Slauenwhite believes the Church will emerge from this trial stronger than ever.
"When you study Church history, when you find persecution, the Church usually grows. If you look at Ethiopia, with communism, they tried to annihilate the Church and just the opposite happened.
"We have to believe that is going to happen in India. It is just very sad, the price that will be paid by Indian Christians. The cost of the Church remaining and growing will be a very heavy human cost."
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Author: Craig Macartney