It seemed like any other Tuesday morning in the village of Anandnagar.
Residents emerged bleary-eyed from their sun-dappled homes and toiled in the fields before returning to lounge upon woven charpai beds, and leisurely exchange gossip with their neighbours.
Hukum Chouhan, 30, pulled on a crisp overshirt and knowingly navigated the village’s narrow streets, avoiding potholes and famished street dogs panting in the shade, to arrive at church.
Mr Chouhan is a proud member of India’s 28 million-strong Christian community, a historic group that is believed to date back to 52AD.
A minority in a country of around 1.38 billion people but a sizeable one nonetheless, constituting around 2% of the population, theoretically a valuable part of the rich tapestry of independent, secular India.
But India’s Christian population has never been under greater threat. The country’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) stokes hatred against Christians, and allied rightwing groups are carrying out record numbers of attacks against believers.
The tranquil rural scene in Anandnagar – situated in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – belies the tension that had been building between the village’s seven Christian families and its remaining 1,000 residents.
On July 31, it boiled over in a terrifying manner. Mr Chouhan was leading prayers when blood-curdling cries of “kill the pastor” and “Christians are selling India” sounded from outside the church.
Opening the church door, Mr Chouhan saw the village’s sarpanch – an elected figure who represents villagers in local politics – leading a mob of 40 people armed with sticks.
“The evening before he had warned us that we must convert to Hinduism. When we did not do this they arrived at our church the next morning, smashed the windows and the door and violently beat the congregation,” recalls Mr Chouhan.
“They also molested my mother and sister-in-law and dragged them into the main market in the village before assembling all the residents. They then sat them there and abused them and humiliated them publicly.”
The attack on Anandnagar’s Christian community was one of 486 violent incidents reported by the United Christian Forum, a nationwide volunteer and activist group, in 2021.
This is the largest number of violent incidents that the UCF has reported since it first began noticing an uptick in attacks in 2014 – when India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi of the BJP, was first elected.
Research by several international organisations has found a similar timeline for a surge in attacks against India’s Christians.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian non-profit based in the United States, has noted a 220% increase in violent attacks on India’s Christians since 2014.
Open Doors International, a non-denominational Christian organisation supporting Christians globally, ranked India as the 10th most dangerous country in the world for Christians in its 2022 World Watch List. It was outside the top 30 when Modi was first elected.
This ranking puts India above Iraq, Syria and the Central African Republic; three war-torn nations where the persecution of Christians has been well documented in recent years.
Christianity is believed to have arrived in the subcontinent when the Apostle Thomas – better known as Doubting Thomas in the Bible for questioning the resurrection – visited the southern state of Kerala in 52AD and baptised some of its residents.
To this day, thousands of churches in Kerala, where roughly one-in-five residents are Christian, bear the name of Apostle Thomas and practise a form of Orthodox Christianity derived from Palestine.
Further waves of Christianity arrived in India during the colonial era. Eager missionaries from the UK, Portugal and France arrived on the same boats as spice traders and began preaching the word of Jesus Christ; particularly on India’s western coast, in areas where modern-day Goa and Mumbai are situated.
These same missionaries also ensured that Christianity made significant inroads in India’s remote, tribal and underdeveloped north-east, where a host of pro-independence insurgencies continue to rage against the Indian government.
In the north-eastern states of Nagaland and Mizoram as much as 90% of the population remains Christian, according to the Indian government’s 2011 census.
Modi rode a wave of growing Indian nationalism to sweep the polls in 2014. His own story rivals that of the best Bollywood thriller – rising from a position as a lowly tea-seller in the western state of Gujarat to become a political behemoth.
With an economy that is now the fifth largest in the world and a population where half of the citizens are under 25, Modi promised that under his rule the 21st century would belong to India.
But Modi faces widespread accusations of pandering to India’s Hindu majority, which accounts for 80% of the population, in his politics and polarising the country along religious lines since securing a second term in 2019.
India’s Home Secretary, Amit Shah, infamously referred to Muslim migrants from Bangladesh as “termites” and the chief minister of India’s largest state, the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, told the BBC that “Muslims did no favour to India by staying here” and implored caution among Hindu voters.
A succession of BJP politicians have espoused the view that India’s Muslim minority, a mere 14% of the population, are seeking to enact demographic change in the country. This is something that has been repeatedly refuted by Indian birthrate data.
However, this narrative has become increasingly accepted, and even popular, within Indian society. In December, a group of influential Hindu leaders gathered in the northern state of Uttarakhand and called on India’s Hindus to arm themselves for a genocide against the country’s Muslims.
Following this event, Professor Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, warned the US Congress that a genocide “could very well happen” in India.
Last year, rightwing Hindu mobs targeted Muslim businesses and homes in the worst inter-communal violence Delhi had seen in decades, killing at least 53 people.
The previous day a BJP leader had given an inflammatory speech, calling on his supporters to clear the streets of Muslims who had been protesting against a new Islamophobic citizenship bill.
Now, this same rhetoric is being extended to India’s Christians. One leading BJP politician from India’s southern state of Karnataka commented in 2019 that Christians were not “honest and loyal citizens of India” and so political seats should not go to believers.
A succession of ruling-party politicians have since claimed that Christian missionaries are forcing Hindus to convert across India’s central and northern states, India’s so-called Hindi heartland and a BJP stronghold.
“As of now, India is already functioning as a mock democracy. It functions instead as a religious, Hindu nationalist dictatorship and Christians are being branded as illegal bodies in India,” explains an Indian activist from Open Doors International, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
“The type of persecution ranges from social boycott of Christians to murder. We regularly see attacks on Sunday worships, on the pastors themselves and some rape cases have been reported by Christian women and girls.”
The attacks are typically being carried out by rightwing Hindu organisations, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which have close links to India’s ruling BJP.
Rishi Mishra, the state president of the VHP in Chhattisgarh, told the New European that his organisation had a presence in every village in the central Indian state.
“We don’t have a problem with Christians preaching their religion in their churches but why are they bringing Hindu people to convert to Christianity?” asked Mr Mishra.
He proudly claims to have converted 40 Christian families back to Hinduism over the last two years and admits VHP members will resort to attacking Christians, adding: “We cannot achieve peace without violence.”
Christian activists say some Hindus are converting to Christianity in India’s north and central states but that it is voluntary.
In particular, they say that many lower-caste Hindus are interested in Christianity because of the country’s entrenched caste (class) system, which is linked to religion, meaning there is no socio-economic mobility for them within Hinduism.
“They accuse Christians of carrying out forced conversions, which is simply not true. There are hardly any instances of anyone doing forceful conversions and when these cases have gone to court the pastors and clergy accused have been acquitted,” said AC Michael, a Christian activist in Delhi.
Christians constitute a tiny fraction of the population in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – 0.29% and 1.92% respectively – according to Indian government data.
Many Christians across northern and central India understandably now live in fear. On November 16, Gajju Kawasi, a father of four, was attacked in his village of Katenar in Chhattisgarh for the third time in six months by a rightwing Hindu mob.
Mr Kawasi was beaten unconscious and continues to suffer ongoing pain in his head, back and waist from the assault.
In the aftermath of the attack, the local government hospital refused to admit him because he was a Christian, he says, under pressure from the mob.
Members of the local Christian community raised over ₹20,000 rupees? (£197) to have Mr Kawasi admitted to a private hospital for nine days.
He reported each of the attacks to the police but no action was taken. The force is heavily under the influence of the BJP and it is common for the heavily injured victims of the assaults, rather than the perpetrators, to be arrested, and then accused of trying to convert Hindus.
“The violent persecution continues to increase and it is often assisted by the police in many areas. The conviction rate is zero,” said the activist fom Open Doors International.
“Evangelism is branded as illegal and Christians are refused permission to carry out baptisms or even just to gather by police. We are not being given our religious freedom.”
Hatred against India’s Christians is also being driven on Facebook. On one page, called NoConversion – which has over 320,000 members – posts contain contact information of missionaries, priests and churches and openly call for violent attacks.
In December, India’s persecution of its Christian minority made global headlines when Delhi announced it was freezing accounts belonging to Mother Theresa’s famous Missionaries of Charity (MoC) organisation, shortly after accusations were made of forced conversions.
The organisation, which has operated in the city of Kolkata since 1950, provides food and board for the vulnerable, including orphans and the terminally ill.
After an international outcry, the MoC had its funding restored, but it is far from an isolated incident. At least 450 Christian charities have had their funding revoked in India since 2011.
Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, one of the most senior figures in the Church of England, says he is alarmed about the safety of India’s Christian minority.
“I was in regular contact with an activist in India for a couple of years and he has gone completely silent over the last six months and I don’t know what has happened to him. Is he keeping his head down or has he been silenced in some way?” asked Bishop Mounstephen.
“This kind of thing is deeply worrying and there is an intolerance in parts of Indian society that has become very, very concerning.”
The spotlight on India’s treatment of its Christians is likely to intensify this year, though, if a planned visit by Pope Francis goes ahead.
Modi has invited the Pope to India in what would be the first Papal visit to the country since 1999. Analysts believe India’s Prime Minister is looking to boost his image in the West, but this could backfire if the Pope uses the opportunity to publicly raise awareness of India’s treatment of its Christian minority.
In the meantime, Bishop Mounstephen urges British Christians to be more proactive, such as writing to their MPs to raise awareness of the persecution the community faces in India.
This could be particularly timely given that the British government is currently negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal with Delhi.
“Some of the rhetoric from the Indian government that I have heard clearly fans the flames. I certainly think at the state level in India there has been quite a significant turning of a blind eye to atrocities against Christians,” he said.
Joe Wallen is the South Asia Correspondent at the Daily Telegraph.