Report on Persecution of Christians in India: Church in Chains

In part 2 of today's meeting, we will meet Mr. David Turner of Church in Chains to discuss its recent paper entitled, "OFFICIAL INDIA: ON THE SIDE OF THE MILITANTS", which was prepared for this committee and addresses the persecution of Christians in India. Mr. Turner is very welcome to today's meeting and we look forward to his presentation.

The format of the meeting involves us hearing Mr. Turner's opening statement before going into a question and answer session with the members. I again remind members, witnesses and those in the Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even in silent mode, with the recording equipment in this committee room.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I now call on Mr. Turner to make his opening statement.

Mr. David Turner

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to appear before the committee today. We want to bring to the committee's attention the recent report on the persecution of Christians in India. I am the director of Church in Chains. We are an independent charity that seeks to support persecuted Christians worldwide. With me today is Pastor Baiju George, an Indian Christian who has been living in Ireland since 2006, and Ms Pamela Coulter, who acts as our advocacy officer.

Our concerns about this matter can be summarised in the title of the report, which is Official India on the side of the militants – an analysis on the persecution of Christians in India with the tacit approval of police and government officials. The report covers the period from July to December 2017, and we have also produced a short summary, which has been circulated to members, but I have copies available for anyone who wants one. Our presentation is divided into three sections. I want to speak about the facts behind the report, with a few brief case histories to illustrate what is going on in India at the moment. Then Pastor George will speak about some of the reasons behind the rise in persecution, which has brought this particularly to our notice. Then Ms Coulter will speak about some recommendations and suggestions as to how this committee could act in response.

Church in Chains has appeared before this committee previously. We have been in existence for over 30 years. We began when we became aware of the plight of Christian prisoners in the Soviet Union. We try to do four main things in our work. We try to raise awareness about the fact that Christians are persecuted around the world, and we do that by publishing accurate and reliable reports. As a Christian organisation, we encourage people to pray, so we circulate a quarterly magazine and a weekly email to our supporters, and we organise various events for them. The third strand, which is the strand that has us here today, is that we advocate for justice. We seek to engage with ambassadors of governments where Christians face persecution. We seek to engage with the committee in the Oireachtas, and we have also been a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's NGO standing committee on human rights. The fourth strand to our work is that we seek to support victims of persecution. That can involve different things in different countries. It includes seeking to support displaced Christians in countries like Iraq, Syria and Nigeria; seeking to support pastors and churches attacked by Hindu extremists in India, which we are considering today, and those who suffer at the hands of Islamist extremists in Pakistan and Egypt, and the families of prisoners in Eritrea. We also support the provision of Bibles and Christian literature in countries where they are not freely available, countries like Iran and North Korea. While our strapline is an Irish voice for persecuted Christians, we would like to make it clear that we believe strongly in religious freedom for all people, and while our focus is predominantly on Christians, we acknowledge that other religious groups, and indeed those who profess atheism, also suffer persecution in many countries, alongside Christians. They would include groups like the Ahmadi Muslim community in Pakistan, the Baha'i community in Iran, Muslims in Burma, China and India, and the Yazidis in Iraq.

The report that we produced on the period July to December 2017 documents a representative sample of 57 serious incidents of persecution during that period. It is a gross understatement of the actual number of incidents. Since we compiled that report, we got some figures from Indian organisations. I do not want to go into too many statistics, but it is clearly seen that in 2016, Indian Christians reported 441 incidents in the country, and in 2017 that number had gone up to 736. Even in the period January to March of this year - the latest news we have is up to last Sunday, which was Palm Sunday, when an attack was recorded - there were 90 documented cases. This is not just being reported by Christian organisations. The first line of the 2017 Human Rights Watch report for India says:

Vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalised communities, and critics of the government - often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - became an increasing threat in India in 2017. The government failed to promptly or credibly investigate the attacks, while many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.

So in many ways, the Human Rights Watch analysis tallies almost exactly with what we have found on what is behind persecution of Christians. Last June, Dr. Ahmad Shaheed, who is the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, was in Dublin speaking at a summer school in Trinity College, and I was at that event. When he was underlining what the current challenges to freedom of religion or belief around the world are, he spoke about the persecutions of Christians in India as being one of those challenges. It is important to note where this persecution is happening in India. It is not happening, to a large part, in the cities of India, where churches are bigger and more visible. Many of India’s Christians are able to practise their faith freely. It has been the case that Christians in India have suffered attacks over decades. I have been involved in this work for 30 years or more. During that time, there have been reports coming in, but it is very evident that there has been a huge increase in recent years. We attribute that to the fact that those who are perpetrating the attacks feel a sense of emboldenment to do that. They feel that they will not be punished for taking part in such attacks, and indeed that they may have the support of local government officials, or the police. A bizarre feature of many of the attacks, which is hard to believe, is that an attacker would attack innocent victims, often drawing blood as the committee will have seen in some of the pictures in the report, and then they drag the victims to the local police station, asking that the victims be charged with forcing conversion. As we consider that, it is also important to note that it is widespread. It is not just in one state in India. Our figures show that attacks last year were reported in 24 out of 29 states in India.

Let me summarise four cases that are shown in the report, beginning with the man whose picture is featured on the front cover of the report, Pastor Khel Prasad Kurre. He was attacked in October 2017. He was on his way home from visiting a member of his church. Four people attacked him and beat him with sticks. He was hospitalised and needed 12 stitches to his head. When he reported the incident to the police, he was informed that the attackers had been to the police station to report that he was converting people to Christianity. The police threatened him with arrest, which deterred him from lodging a complaint about the attacks.

On page six of the report, the committee can see a picture of Pastor Karthik Chandran. He was attacked by a group of 20 Hindu extremists in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in December.

His church was running a pre-Christmas charity event open to everybody. The event was intended to distribute clothing to the poor, aged and widows. The extremists came in and broke the music equipment, chairs and glass windows. The Christians submitted photos and videos of the assault to the police. In this case, the police did register a case against the assailants, but they did not arrest anybody despite the clear evidence. Again, that prompted fears of collusion between police and the attackers.

On page 7 of our submission is a picture of Pastor Harjot Singh Sethi. He is pictured with his leg in plaster. He suffered head and leg injuries in Rajasthan state in August 2017. About 50 extremists attacked a group of Christians holding a prayer meeting in one of their homes. This took place in a private home. The extremists said they would stop the attack if the Christians, and Pastor Sethi in particular, would shout "Hail, Lord Ram". It is hard to see a more clear-cut example of the motivation behind the attacks. Before receiving medical treatment, Pastor Sethi was taken to a police station. The attackers came there and abused the Christians, and accused Pastor Sethi of forceful conversion. This is a regular pattern. Pastor Baiju George will speak about why they do that. Six attackers were charged by police, but with minor offences.

The last example I want to mention on this occasion is pictured on page 6 of our submission. Pastor Muniyandi Elangoan Jebraj suffered soft-tissue brain damage after a brutal attack by five Hindu extremists in July 2017 in Tamil Nadu. This took place outside the church gate. Pastor Jebraj and his son, who is also a pastor, were battered with a knife, wooden sticks and steel rods. The attackers were identified as members of the Hindu Makkal Katchi, an extremist group. However, police denied any religious motivation in the incident despite the fact that the group the attackers belonged to had been aggressively inciting Hindus in Tamil Nadu to attack Christians.

I could provide many more examples. I mention those to highlight what it is like on the ground. At this point I would like to turn to Pastor Baiju George. He is an Indian Christian who has been living in Ireland since 2006. He will speak about how things have changed for Christians in his home country, speak about some of the people he has been in contact with and outline some of the reasons behind the rise in persecution.

Mr. Baiju George

I hope I will do justice to what I have been assigned today. I will address some of the reasons for the rise in persecution of Christians in India in the past two to three years. We have been noticing an increase in persecution across the country. The year 2016 was probably the worst since the independence of India. Persecution then doubled in 2017. Most of the cases were authenticated by organisations that stand with Christians in India. Some cases are reported, some go unreported. This is because the church itself tries to take care of some of the cases and does not report them to the police, newspapers or TV channels. Incidents have largely taken place because the victims are independent. They are attacked because they are not a part of big organisations. Such matters are taken care of by organisations. One such organisation is Persecution Relief, headed by Mr. Shibu Thomas. I know him personally. That group has been working for Christians in India for the past three or four years.

I will outline some of the reasons that persecutions have increased in India. Even though the central government at the highest level has been silent about religious freedom, ministers or officials at state level make public statements to national news channels and newspapers saying that they want India to be a Hindu country or that India is for Hindus and not for any other religion. However, when asked about this, central government and top officials, including the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members, remain "mum". They do not say anything about it. As such, one of the reasons for persecution is that people are not speaking out. The top authorities do not speak out against the religious persecution happening in India, not only against Christians but also against other minorities.

It is not only Christian minorities who are targeted. Muslims are also targeted. Christians are targeted because of their faith. However, the Muslims are not targeted because of their faith. They are targeted because of the food they eat, including beef. Most Muslims are involved in beef trading and have businesses involving meat. The committee members will know that the cow is considered very sacred by Hindus. Even though the meat served does not come from cows, but from buffalo, lamb or other animals, Hindus attack Muslims. Muslims are persecuted for that reason. In the case of Christians however, it is all about faith, and the charge that they are converting. "Conversion" is the word used for any Christianity. They say that any Christian programme active around the country is trying to convert people.

There has been a very large increase in the number of Christians in India. Government officials have stated that the percentage of Christians in India is around 2.4%, but unofficially it has increased to 12%, which the Government is not ready to accept. Christianity is spreading and people are getting to know about God in the right way as we provide them with information.

New Hindu extremist groups are appearing in almost every state because of the influence of the central Government. Groups who were silent during the last Government have come up with their own agendas because the central Government has been helpful to them in every way. The police have aided the Government and enabled attacks on Christians. One such group is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS, which was silent until this Government. That is one of the main groups targeting Christians in India. There are a number of other groups.

As Mr. Turner said, such incidents take place most often in rural or village areas, where churches have much fewer members. They are targeted because there is nobody to stand for them. By contrast, the smallest church in a city might have at least 5,000 members. It is not easy for Hindu extremists to attack churches with large numbers of members. I come from a church which has 15,000 members. Our church does not experience such attacks because it has very strong political backing. However, people in villages and rural areas do not have enough supporters. That is one of the reasons they are attacked.

Although 2016 was bad, 2017 was worse. In 2018, by 21 March, details of 90 cases of persecution against Christians had been reported.

There is some conflict about the number. How many Christians are there in India? One paper says-----

According to one paper, there are 29 million Christians and another says 71 million.

What is the official number of Christians?

Mr. Baiju George

I do not have the number but I have an unofficial figure of 12% of the population in the category of Christian.

In one document it says it is 29 million and in another it says 71 million.

Mr. David Turner

The figure of 71 million is the official Christian population, as recorded in 2014. I have been in contact with Indian Christians in recent years, and it seems the number is in doubt, as Pastor George has said. It is thought that there are more Christians than are officially recorded. There is a belief that this suits the Indian government in arguing that Christianity is not on the rise. It also suits some Christians that the figure is understated in that a perceived rise would lead to further persecution. The answer to Deputy Barrett's question is that I do not know, but those are the reasons I do not know.

I apologise for interrupting.

The briefing that we were given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade indicated 2.3%, or the equivalent of 29 million, which I assume is based on the official figures published by the Indian authorities.

I invite Ms Coulter to make a short contribution.

Ms Pamela Coulter

I thank the committee for listening. We are not coming to the committee with problems without presenting some solutions and recommendations. I will now put forward our recommendations, of which there are three parts. The first relates to the Government of India. We recommend that Prime Minister Modi speak clearly and consistently in support of full religious freedom for all in India. He made a major speech in February 2015 but did not follow up on it and consequently it had little effect. We recommend that the national leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, would abandon its call for a national anti-conversion law. This law is demonstrably at variance with the promotion of national harmony and is against international norms of human rights and religious freedom. We recommend that state governors make clear that religiously motivated violence will not be tolerated and instruct police under their jurisdiction to bring the perpetrators of such violence to justice and to refrain from the current widespread practice of arresting the victims of the violence rather than the perpetrators. The police represent a major issue. We recommend that the police at all levels should impartially uphold the law at all times to protect religious minorities in daily life, to prosecute the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence rather than the victims and to treat seriously threats against religious minorities.

The recommendations to our own Government are as follows. We recommend that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, publicly express concern at the dramatic upsurge of violence against Christians in India and encourage the Government of India to combat the attackers, protect the victims and promote religious freedom. We also ask him to raise the matter with the Indian Ambassador to Ireland. We ask that the Government ensure that the Irish Embassy in India is fully briefed on the situation of freedom of religion or belief in India. This is outlined in the 2013 EU guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief. More immediately, we ask that this matter is raised as a priority issue in the next session of EU-India human rights dialogue.

We ask that the joint committee arrange a meeting to discuss the dramatic upsurge of violence against Christians in India either as a single issue or as part of a wider issue of the ongoing persecution of Christians worldwide. This was last discussed by the committee in 2015. Lastly, we ask that the Indian Ambassador to Ireland, Mrs. Vijay Thakur Singh, be invited to attend a meeting of the joint committee to respond to the serious situation that is outlined in this briefing document.

I thank Ms Coulter. We will now take some questions before returning to the witnesses.

The witnesses are welcome. It does not make a difference since persecution is persecution, but for my own information, when the witnesses refer to Christian churches, do they mean mainstream churches or are there many others that are non-mainstream churches? One sees the state and the agents of the law acting together and there is no recourse for people when they have a grievance. There is a question in relation to the role of the governors. They seem to carry a lot of influence in each area. Who has access to the governors to raise these issues? There is safety in numbers and it seems that if there was an organisation that was able to make these representations it would be better rather than people doing so individually. I noted in the briefing the role of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Can that go further and if so, how?

When is the EU-India human rights dialogue coming up and in what sense can there be an input into that to raise these concerns?

The witnesses are very welcome. We need to acknowledge that we do not have to go far to note the rise in sectarianism. We only have to look in our own country and what is happening in Ireland today. It is the 21st century, yet discrimination in class, colour or creed continues in many countries across the world. The witnesses referred to 24 of 29 states. It is clearly a huge problem which India needs to address. I wonder about the seeds of the sectarianism. Some say it goes back to British rule which fomented sectarianism, and set different religions against each other in an effort to control the population. We have seen that in other countries too. I agree that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade should contact his Indian counterpart to state his deep concern about the attacks on religious freedom by the right-wing sectarian Hindu militias, not only against Christians but also against Muslims and Sikhs and other religious minorities.

According to the witnesses, 20% of all reported attacks took place in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Why is there such a high percentage of attacks in that particular area? What are the triggers? From our own history, we know that there have been attacks on minority populations as a consequence of inflammatory speeches by political parties or their leaders. Is that a common factor? In areas where attacks occur, do people of different religions live cheek by jowl or do they reside in separate areas? Are there economic reasons behind the attacks? Is there a perception that one group is better off than the other? The witnesses mentioned people of the Muslim faith may be involved in a particular trade. Is that a trigger? That has been something used as a reason for religious attacks across the world. Is it stoked by people of wealth, privilege or power?

I return to asking about the role played by political parties. The witnesses referred to the role of social media. Is this being used to stoke these attacks? There is a growing middle class in India and there is increasing wealth and an increased use of social media. Have companies such as Facebook or Google been approached on this matter?

On the issue of complaints being made to the police but not being followed up on, is there need for a separate structure within the policing service in India? What demands should we be making of the Indian Government? On the anti-conversion laws, perhaps the witnesses would elaborate on what is involved.

Like many of my colleagues, I have a good relationship with the Indian community in Ireland. We attend many of the Indian festivals and so on. What is being done to make the Indian community here more aware of these attacks on the religious minority groups? The people from India who I meet in Ireland would be horrified to hear what is going on in their country. Perhaps this voice needs to be used to garner support for what we are trying to do to stop these attacks on religious groups.

I will ask Mr. Turner to respond at this point, following which I will allow more questions.

Mr. David Turner

I will be as brief as possible. I will ask Pastor Baiju George to speak about Uttar Pradesh and the trigger for the attacks. On the identity of the churches, a lot of the attacks are on villages and small informal churches which might be Pentecostal in denominational terms. I will ask Pastor Baiju George to respond to the question on the State governors.

On the EU human rights dialogue, I am not sure of the next date for that dialogue. My inquiries did not reveal if a date has been set but I am sure the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would know it. When we approach the Government here on taking an initiative about any country, the response is often that it works better in consultation with its EU partners. If this is to be the case, issues such as this should be included in the EU human rights dialogue. This can only happen if States raise the issue. If Ireland raises it, there is a very good chance it will be discussed.

On Deputy Crowe's question regarding social media, social media is being used by the attackers. They seem to revel in recording such attacks and broadcasting them through social media channels. I am not sure whether the channels used are the international ones such as Facebook and so on. There is video footage available of people burning Bibles and abusing churches. Those involved are quite happy to do this. One could not imagine anybody here doing something like this, recording it and putting up on social media because they would know that the Garda Síochána would arrest them and use that footage to convict them.

On the Indian community in Ireland, I will ask Pastor Baiju George to comment on that. We are very happy to have him with us today to express the concerns of the Indian community. I will ask him to respond at this point, starting with the reason there are more attacks on Uttar Pradesh.

Mr. Baiju George

Uttar Pradesh is governed by Yogi Adityanath. He is the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and a strong Hindu. He believes in the protection of cows over human beings. There is a proposal to assign social security numbers or social welfare cards to cows to ensure they are protected. The animals are of greater importance to them than human beings. Yogi Adityanath has many farms on which there are only cows. Hindus worship cows and so they are afforded greater protection than human beings. The Government does not recognise religious freedom. Whenever questions are raised about it, the Government promises to address them but it does nothing. When attacks on the churches in Uttar Pradesh are brought to the attention of the police, the police do not react because they are being supported by a Government that favours the Hindus. Uttar Pradesh is one of the leading States in India for the Hindutva ideology. It is the destination for people from around the world who want to visit Hindu temples and learn about Hinduism. As I said, it is the leading State for the Hindutva ideology in India.

Mr. David Turner

What are the triggers for attacks?

Mr. Baiju George

They do not want Christianity to exist in India. Many of the BJP Ministers have openly stated that India is a Hindu nation. I have heard people say that Christianity is for Israelites and western people, it is not for India: India is a Hindu country. They do not want Christians to flourish in India, which, in my opinion, is the trigger for the rising issues in India.

Mr. David Turner

Perhaps Mr. Baiju George would comment on the accusations about conversion and explain why they are made and what is meant by them.

Mr. Baiju George

The anti-conversion Bill was recently introduced in India. Eight states have already passed it. It is not only about conversion to Christianity but conversion to any religion but it is being targeted only at conversion to the Christian organisation. This is ghar wapsi, which is the reconversion of a person to his or her original religion. They are forcefully going into villages and asking the people to convert back to Hinduism because Hindu is the religion of India. As I said, the anti-conversion Bill is targeted only at Christians. Christian gatherings in a small hut or village are not permitted because the view is that the purpose of such gatherings is to convert people. The word "conversion" is being used to incite accusations against the Christians.

Mr. David Turner

Prior to this meeting Pastor Baiju George told me about one of the attacks that occurred recently on a family home. The people present in the home were members of the family and extended family. There was not one person present who was not a member of the family. The extremists arrived and said that they were meeting for the purpose of conversion and, therefore, they could attack them. It appears that the word "conversion" is being used as a trigger to justify the attacks that are taking place.

Thank you. I call Deputy Barrett.

I am surprised by these remarks. I certainly was not aware of any of this. Some time ago, when I was a Minister, I visited India and I met the chiefs of staff of the defence forces, all of whom were non-Christian but educated by Irish Christian Brothers.

The chiefs of staff had the height of respect for the Irish Christian Brothers. There was no hint of antagonism but, admittedly, that is a while ago. Have things got worse in the recent past or have they progressively worsened? Perhaps it is me but I was totally ignorant that this matter was such a problem. It does not seem to have been covered in the media reports that I have read and it was eye-opening to hear the contributions made here this morning. I look forward to meeting the Indian ambassador to see what she has to say about the matter. There is no way that anybody can stand back and allow the persecution of anybody based on religious grounds, no matter what religion they have. I hope that the committee will follow up on the matter.

I thank the delegation for coming here and making a presentation. I support the delegation in terms of what it seeks. However, it is important that we broaden the conversation. Early last year I had a meeting with two members of the Muslim community who were from India. They outlined to me the attacks that their family had suffered. Similar attacks were outlined by the delegation and, indeed, one of their distant relatives was killed for being Muslim. When we talk to the Indian ambassador or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade we should mention all minority groups that are being persecuted by the Hindus in the region and emphasise that it is not just Christians. I know Muslim people have been attacked and I am sure other members of the Indian community have been attacked and persecuted for their beliefs. I am a Christian and it is important that we protect Christians but I firmly believe we must also protect other groups. I propose that the committee seeks to protect all minority groups in the region and convey that to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Indian ambassador when they appear before the committee.

We will, as a committee, invite the Indian ambassador to attend a meeting. All we can do is invite her and we hope that she will agree to attend.

Some time ago I sought replies to my parliamentary questions from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. He indicated that Ireland would raise at the UN the right of people to freely practise their religious beliefs, particularly at the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly and also the European Union Council. As a committee, we could ask the Minister to again raise, specifically at a meeting of the Council of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers, the need for the European Union to take a very strong line on this matter. It is deplorable to hear that Christians have been persecuted and, indeed, people of any belief or no belief. Church in Chains has done a good job in bringing these matters to our attention. I agree with Deputy Barrett that the matter has not received the media attention that it deserves. We hope that, following our committee giving Church in Chains the opportunity to raise these important issues, it would merit some consideration and awareness in this country.

With regard to what Church in Chains has asked the committee to do, we will invite the ambassador of India to come here. We will also ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to again raise the issue at the Council of Ministers and also, very strongly, at the UN Human Rights Council. We should raise this matter at every forum possible, be it at Government or parliamentary level, or in any other representative capacity. Let us remember that our own people, in their day, were persecuted for holding their faith. It is unacceptable to persecute people for their beliefs in this so-called civilised world.

I ask Mr. Turner to make a brief concluding remark because the committee has a tight timeframe due to having other business to conduct. Has Church in Chains engaged with church leaders in this country, India and elsewhere about these important issues? The report presented by the organisation today, and the reports of previous years, give a frightening picture of the persecution of innocent people.

As evidenced here this morning, the persecution has happened with the tacit approval of the police and Government officials, which is a worrying state of affairs. The persecution and killings are appalling. It is a fact that people have made complaints to the police but nothing happened, which is where political focus is needed. The committee must ask the following questions. Why has nothing been done? What has the Indian Government done to resolve the issue? We all need to raise our voices, in terms of this issue.

I ask that when Mr. Turner makes his concluding remarks he refers to the caste system in India. Is the current persecution related to social issues?

Mr. David Turner

Deputy Barrett asked whether the persecution has worsened in recent years. Yes, and that is what initially drove the publication of our report. As I mentioned initially, we are concerned about many countries around the world where Christians face persecution. In the second half of last year I became aware of the piles of reports from India. That is why we commissioned and put together our report. I confirm that the persecution has worsened over the past two to three years.

Did that coincide with the change in Government?

Mr. David Turner

Yes. I thank the Chairman for the actions that he and his committee propose to take, which are exactly what my organisation has sought. It has been mentioned that the matter has not received much publicity. In many ways it is convenient for everyone to ignore these issues. It can be convenient for governments that trade with India or any other country to ignore human rights issues. That is why we thought it best to put the facts before the committee and call on the committee to take some action.

In terms of church leaders here in Ireland, we have had mixed responses to the reports that we have raised. There might be two main reasons for the mixed responses. First, in many countries around the world, very often those who face the most severe persecution are those who are members of churches that are outside mainstream churches. In addition, those who have left another faith to become Christians often receive the most direct persecution. That would be one reason for a lukewarm response by church leaders in Ireland.

Second, there is a misplaced position on the relationship between churches here in Ireland and other religious groups. Interfaith groups are very important in Ireland. Some church leaders are reluctant to talk about issues, as evidence suggests that the adherence of other religions are responsible for sectarian attacks against Christians. Some church leaders might be a little afraid that if they raise such issues it will upset interfaith dialogue in Ireland. Church in Chains fully supports interfaith dialogue and the freedom of all to live in peace and harmony in this country but it is vital that interfaith dialogue takes note of what truly happens in different places around the world.

I agree with Deputy Crowe that the core issue is for police to take action at a local level, and I wish the matter could be resolved. It would be good to retain a focus on the matter and I fully believe in that.

I ask Pastor Baiju George to address the final question about whether there is a caste element.

Mr. Baiju George

That is a very important question which I ignored. The caste system is a big issue in India at present. The people in the lower caste are being targeted by the higher caste people, including with regard to being given water. If there is a well or bore well in an area where there are higher caste people and if lower caste people take water from the well, they are being killed for doing so. In a recent case, a husband and wife were paraded naked on the streets because they took water from a higher caste people's area. That is one area where people are being targeted in persecutions against lower caste people. That is definitely happening.

I wish to make a further correction. When I was talking about the anti-conversion Bill, I mentioned that eight states have already passed it. It was not eight states but seven states. I apologise for that.

I thank Ms Coulter, Pastor George and Mr. Turner for their presentations today. We will follow up on the actions we promised and we will refer back to them.

Ms Pamela Coulter

Chairman, when and if the committee meets the Indian ambassador, she might say that India has affirmation action for helping people in the lower castes with education and jobs. However, that affirmation action, which sounds very good, applies to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. It does not reach the Christians at all. She might say in defence that India has affirmative action and is sorting this out, but it does not apply to the Christians. They do not receive the benefit of that.

I thank Ms Coulter.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.12 p.m. and adjourned at 12.31 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 April 2018.