The horrendous persecution of Christians in Orissa, India, in 2009 has been graphically detailed in the media. What is not so well known is that many assembly believers were innocently caught up in the violence, suffering physical abuse, the burning of their homes, and loss of all their material possessions. I met with dear fellow believers who spent days and nights hiding with their families on the mountains and weeks in the awful conditions of the refugee camps.
The constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion for all. However, the state of Orissa was one of the first to pass the Anti-Conversion Bill. This institutionalized opposition to the gospel which had existed for many years.
My invitation came from a brother who had been in prison himself in 1984. With another brother, he had been giving out literature which contained a quotation from Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving … and idolaters.” The reference to “idolaters” was reported to the authorities as incitement against religion and they were arrested and detained in isolation. The matter of their imprisonment was reported in the media and came to the attention of the state governor who knew the brother who was in prison. The governor ordered that the case be heard and that these two men be released from prison within 48 hours. In court the prosecutor said that the quotation was from the Bible and that quoting from the Bible was not an offense. “These are good men. They tell people not to drink or smoke or steal and are a benefit to society. You fools, you want to put them in prison?” The believers of the local assembly were gathered in prayer at the gates of the prison when the brethren walked out free.
Fanatical religious hatred and ethnic cleansing culminated in the murder of Mr. Graham Staines and his two sons who were burned alive on January 23, 1999. This received world-wide condemnation. Mr. Staines was not an assembly worker, but had been a veteran missionary among lepers in remote villages for 14 years.
In one area of Orissa, there is an assembly with over 100 first generation believers. I had a meal with an older widow whose husband labored in the gospel and saw the assembly formed. He continued in faithful testimony in the village in spite of hatred and threats by fanatics who eventually murdered him.
As the first foreigner to visit the assemblies in Orissa since the recent persecution of 2009, the authorities were notified of the details of my stay. At the police station the officer checked my details, examined my passport, made contact with the chief of police and an interview which normally takes hours was over in five minutes. “You are our guest, welcome to our town.” I was accepted with police permission and an element of protection. So the Lord answered prayer and our exercise was confirmed.
During my visit in February and March 2010, brethren from across Orissa gathered for three daily sessions of ministry for four days, as I sought to encourage them in the Lord’s work. I was humbled to listen to these worthies of faith who have known almost unbelievable suffering for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, as they related their experiences.
One man told us that when he was saved he was beaten by other members of his family who were devoutly religious. Before he became unconscious he remembers his father calling for an iron bar to “finish him off.” In spite of appalling injuries, he hid from house to house with some sisters in the assembly. He felt he must go back and tell his family about Christ. He faced physical violence each time he went but he was eventually allowed into his father’s house again. On one occasion he was received to the meal table, but during the meal he felt something move on his leg and realized it was a poisonous snake. His family said, “We have tried to poison you three times and now even the snake does not bite you.” He said, “My Savior will protect me and I only want to tell you about Him.” He wept as he shared his burden about his family.
I met a young man who came from a largely illiterate tribal area of central Orissa. In this area there is continual armed conflict and idolatrous practices including child sacrifice, still secretly carried out in defiance of the law. He was the first in his village to be saved and they threatened to kill him. He had to move out of his house and live elsewhere, making frequent visits back again. He went to the main ringleaders and said they could do their business but his business was to tell his people about his Savior. Eventually his testimony was blessed and there is now an assembly of 40 believers meeting in his house.
In the horrific acts of 2009, assembly believers in Orissa were also innocent sufferers. The focus of the violence was the murder of a religious leader blamed on the Christians. After the funeral, frenzied mobs gathered at the homes of these believers bent on driving them out. One brother gathered his wife and family in his small house and prayed as his motorbike was burned outside. Doors and window frames were smashed as boulders broke the tiles on the roof. Several assembly families were warned by their neighbors and advised to flee. I located one such brother and his family who are still displaced from his village. He had a motorcycle on which he used to go out to the villages with the gospel. He left it with a friendly neighbor. The crowd went to burn his motorcycle. The neighbor asked them why they were doing this and the mob killed him as a collaborator. This brother hid his Bible with some valuables in waterproof material and buried them in the ground. With his wife he set off into the forest carrying his baby daughter and holding his little boy by the hand. They fled to the mountain in the rain and in the morning someone reached him with the news that his elder brother had been murdered, burned alive in front of his wife. He was warned not to stay on the mountain, so they walked on in the rain for three days and three nights through a tropical rain forest infested with snakes and wild animals to a third mountain. Later, he heard that his house was burned. The lady in the next house did not leave. Police removed her ashes two weeks later. In the months following, the conditions in the government refugee camps were intolerable.
On April 15, 2010, eight brethren in another area were savagely beaten by a frenzied mob. Four of these brethren were arrested after fanatics filed complaints against them of forcible conversion. They were attacked while distributing gospel tracts. They suffered cuts and wounds on their bodies. The law aimed at curbing “conversions” made by “force,” “fraud,” or “allurement” has been often misused to arrest and imprison believers. These brethren have been strengthened by the Lord and blessed in their testimony in prison among other prisoners. They have been released on bail pending appearance in court at a later date.
Since my return home, recent news tells of an attack upon two brethren who were visiting house to house and distributing tracts. They were invited into a house where premeditated attacks left them barely able to walk. Their Bibles and literature were burned and they were reported to the police. In recent days I have a confirmed report that a brother has been murdered in another state through which I passed. Please pray for his wife and little girl.
I also visited West Bengal where there is more liberty for the preaching of the gospel. The highlight of my visit to this area was to preach in the open air at night in the forest villages. At times, over 100 people would come out from grass huts as we preached.
It was also a privilege to visit two assemblies in Nepal where the preaching of the gospel was forbidden until 1990. Amid the poverty of subsistence farming in the Himalayan foothills, God has blessed His Word and over one hundred believers gathered three times a day for three days eager to listen to basic New Testament assembly truth.
Over the past fifteen years I have met believers in Siberia and heard of their suffering for the sake of the gospel in the labor camps of Stalinist Russia. Persecution still continues and will intensify as the Lord’s return is imminent. Please pray for assembly believers today who still live in fear and suffer for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ in this 21st century. Yet, please give thanks that there are those, rejoicing in the prospect of that blessed hope, who continue in faithful testimony to the glory of our soon coming Lord.