01 September 2008

Burned Alive: Some Background on the India Violence

Mission, Ministry, and Martyrdom in India Today
by Phil Johnson

UPDATE: See yesterday's comment thread. Commenter "Amit" writes: "if preachers from your community keep doing the same they are doing right now (Spreding dis-information about Hinduism) I am affraid to say that acts are justified."

He's not joking or exaggerating, nor is he by any means alone in nursing those passions. Do keep praying for our brothers and sisters who live within easy reach of that kind of hostility.

raham Staines was an Australian (Brisbane-born) independent Baptist missionary who lived and served in India for most of his adult life. Staines was 23 years old in 1965 when he first went to India to meet a pen-pal with whom he had corresponded since childhood. While there, he visited an Australian-sponsored leprosy hospital. Deeply moved, he decided to stay and devote his life to working among leprosy victims in India. He never went back to live in Australia.

Graham became fluent in Oriya (the dominant language in Orissa), as well as the Santhali dialect. His ministry was mainly among India's poorest, most disadvantaged people. He met Gladys, a young nurse, in 1981 when she came to work with leprosy patients. Graham and Gladys married a year and a half later. Though they were relatively late starting a family (Graham was 42 and Gladys almost 32 when they married), they had a daughter (Esther) and two sons (Philip and Timothy).

And on a personal note, they were friends of Grace to India and members of the tape library there.

In January of 1999, Graham took his sons to the remote—almost inaccessible—village of Manoharpur (near Kendujhar, Orissa) for a four-day jungle camp. The terrain was so rough that reaching the village required an off-road vehicle. Staines had a four-wheel-drive Willys minibus that allowed him to get there, and he and his sons slept in the vehicle each night.

"Jungle Camp" was an annual event in Manoharpur; Staines had been organizing them there for fourteen years. Graham and his sons were well known and well loved by the villagers there, and he would teach them every year on a broad range of subjects ranging from public health and hygiene to the gospel, which he proclaimed unapologetically, but without pressuring villagers for conversions. Nevertheless, some 22 low-caste families had reportedly converted to Christianity over the years, and Hindu radicals in the surrounding district used the charge of "forced conversions" to incite hostility against Staines's work.

Sometime in the early-morning hours of January 23, a mob of more than 100 angry Hindu radicals approached the vehicle where Graham Staines, nine-year-old Philip, and seven-year-old Timothy were sleeping. The group surrounded the automobile, trapping Staines and his sons inside. They doused it with gasoline and then torched it, burning Staines and his two young sons alive. According to a short news item featured in Christianity Today a couple of months later, "As the flames engulfed the vehicle, the mob danced and some shouted, 'Justice has been done; the Christians have been cremated in Hindu fashion.' The mob kept would-be rescuers at bay for more than an hour until making sure the missionary and his sons had died."

There was a considerable amount of publicity about the incident in the worldwide media at the time (except in America's mainstream media, where the story was barely covered). Regional officials at first seemed prepared to let the matter drop after only a cursory investigation, until the Indian Cabinet in New Delhi ordered a judicial inquiry.

A year later, the purported ringleader, Dara Singh (aka Ravinder Kumar Pal) was arrested. Over the following three years, he was tried, convicted of the crime, and sentenced to death (in spite of Gladys Staines's personal plea to the judges for clemency on his behalf). Finally, in 2005, Singh's sentence was commuted to life in prison, and eleven other persons who had been convicted in the conspiracy were summarily released from prison. Recently, Dara Singh has petitioned the court for his own early release.

Gladys and Esther Staines remained in India and continued their ministry for several years after the murders. About four years ago, they returned to Australia. Esther, barely 13 at the time of the murders, wanted to earn a medical degree in Australia, and Gladys, exhausted, simply wanted to be a mother for a while. She still makes regular visits to India and continues to support the work she and her husband began in Orissa.

Most of India was shocked and outraged by the 1999 atrocity, but there is a radical Hindu element, still strong in Orissa, who continue to justify the unprovoked killing of Graham Staines and his two young children, even today. And the killer, Dara Singh, is still something of a folk hero among radical Hindus.

All of that is important context to keep in mind while trying to make sense of events in Orissa over the past ten days.

When radical Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was murdered last week (see our previous post), Hindu radicals immediately blamed Christian missionaries. Many Hindu nationalists remain insistent that Christian missionaries plotted and carried out the attack, even though non-Christian Moaists have taken responsibility for the murder. Blogs and websites with ties to the radical VHP have been reassuring one another that Christian missionaries were indeed behind the Swami murder, and all reports to the contrary are being dismissed by them as propaganda fomented by "the secular press" in India.

One false story, widely and quickly dispersed through the VHP community, claimed an employee of World Vision had been arrested as a suspect in the Swami murder. It turned out World Vision employees had only been brought to a police station for their own safety, after they were forced to flee bands of marauding Hindu fanatics. But VHP blogs and websites continue to propagate the false rumor anyway.

Sadly, the long-term effect of the violence incited by Hindu nationalists has had a chilling effect on Christian activities—especially the preaching of the gospel. Conversion is now a politically incorrect word and a concept guaranteed to stir hostile passions in India, where often no distinction is made between the simple preaching of the gospel and the forced style of "conversion" by which Islam originally spread through the subcontinent at the point of a sword.

Moreover, the situation in India is terribly confounded by the issue of so-called "mass conversions," urged even by some evangelical groups. Mass conversions are frequently publicized in advance and usually appear to be socially rather than spiritually motivated. India's Dalits (sometimes called Untouchables) are especially prone to use mass conversion as a social protest. (To quote a good friend of mine who is an Indian pastor: "Mass conversions . . . can result in social not true Christianity and much false conversions of the low castes who [merely] want aid and social recognition.") Mass conversions to Buddhism are common among Dalits as well.

Some so-called Christian groups in India seem to have forgotten that being a Christian is a matter of personal faith in Christ and obedience to Him as Lord. That's not an incidental idea, but the very heart of the gospel and the principle of sola fide. A failure to make the gospel clear is one of the sad by-products of the decline of Western evangelicalism—and it is tragic to see the effects of that decline hurting the church in India as well. Authentic Christianity is not a caste or a social identity, and that fact too often gets lost or obscured, especially in India.

So continue to pray for courage and conviction and safety on behalf of our fellow believers in India. These are difficult—dangerous—times for gospel-centered ministry there.

ADDENDUM: I got this message from a close friend in India this morning:

I just wanted to add that hundreds of Christians have fled from their towns and even villages into the jungles and there are several stories emerging of christians being cut up into pieces (I was told of even one boy—son of an evangelist—of 13 who was cut up into 15 pieces).

BTW, there are over 2 million people affected by a flooding of the Kosi river in the state of Bihar (one of the poorest states of India). Pray for the crisis there, too.

ALSO: Read "In a crucified state," from The Hindustan Times

Phil's signature


Wes Walker said...

At times like this, the consumeristic 'gospel' that North America too often offers looks like the weak, naked, blind, thing that really it is.

God grant that we may live boldly in our generation, in times of peace, rather than have that peace (continue to) lull us to a stupor.

Lord, help us to truly wake up.

Starting with me.

Rick Frueh said...

I pray things like this will both help us realize that the front lines are not in North America, and that we American living Christians will part with more money, help, prayer, and ears to hear God's calling as it pertains to joining our hearts and lives to our brothers and sisters abroad.

donsands said...

Thanks for posting this. To be burned alive like that is too difficult to even imagine, especially two young lads.

Andrew Jones said...

phil - really appreciate your work on these two posts. i blogged it.

Phil Johnson said...



Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for your detailed report of the situation in Orissa.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Hi Phil,

I confess that it's hard for me to love the enemies of Christ in India. To read about an innocent missionary and two young sons being burned alive causes great anger and grief to well up.

Jesus is the Truth. He unites... and divides ... to the point of death sometimes.

God bless all persecuted saints, martyrs, missionaries, and faithful disciples.

Solameanie said...

It amazes me that the news media and politicians can focus on places like Kosovo, Georgia etc..and yet ignore a slaughter like this in "the world's largest democracy." Where's the call for sanctions or some other high-profile action to stop the bloodshed?

Then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

Susan said...

Last year I received an email that described in detail the violence that some missionaries in Turkey had to endure before they were martyred. The account was so harrowing that it almost seemed unreal, but we know better. (Did not the Lord say that these things would happen?) May the Lord keep our faith in him in these troubled times, and may he protect his own who are in danger.

(The story of those missionaries in Turkey can be found here.

Andrew E. Courtis said...

Thanks Phil for providing this background. I appreciate these posts and the call to prayer for our brethren.

Steven Long said...

Thanks so much for posting this guys. My family and I are missionaries headed to West Africa to work among the Muslims. I gain great encouragement from these stories and it makes me realize that the gospel is surely not about me. Thanks again.

Together in His Labors,
The Long family

Stefan Ewing said...

It makes my daily struggles as a Christian seem pathetic by comparison.

Susan said...

Right on, Stefan. My own struggles are nothing compared to these faithful ones'. May the Lord keep good his word and provide them (and us) ways of escape when temptations become too strong to bear.

Chris said...

Hearing stories like these are difficult. I am outraged and am quicker to cry to God for justice more than anything. I've been on a few missionary trips in latin America and never experienced any kind of opposition. I can't imagine what it's like for these brothers and sisters who risk their lives daily for the sake of the Gospel. May the Lord keep them.

Ben N said...

Tertullian was right: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”
He was also right when he stated that “the first reaction to truth is hatred”

May God bless India. With God there is no waste!

Mark said...

I feel violence for any cause whether justified or unjustified should not be encouraged.

As untouchability could be found in some parts of India,similarly racism is found in some of the western countries.

There are references to cast system in Hindu religious texts where god him self tells I have created the four casts namely the Brahmins(spiritual and religious
community who know the religious texts and spread the Spiritual,religious and worldly knowledge to the other 3
casts)Shatriyas(warriors community who needs to protect other 3 casts from enemies),Vaishyas(Business
community who needs to take care of the economy of the country and to do charity to other 3 casts),Shudras(labor community who serve in the form
of laborers to the other 3 cast).
But there is no reference to untouchablilty which is followed in some parts of the country in the name of cast system.It may be said that god created the cast system for the division of work,so each cast serves the other casts and there be overall harmony and development of the society.

I would like to say the cast system is a complex subject
which needs deep understanding of Hindu religion to understand it and to make any comments about it.

As in any religion ignorant people belonging to that religion do not understand the religion properly and they practice religion in incorrect way.

I myself have studied in a Cristian institution up to my SSLC and I feel there are some things which are good and somethings which are
not so good.The school which I studied believed in conversion, I had Cristian friends far close to me than few of my Hindu friends.at times i used to feel uncomfortable when i was made to sing prayers in
praise of Cristian gods namely Jesus and Mary .i used to feel,was it correct on my part to praise different lords than which i believed in.Hence i had some mixed
feelings about my school.I was so influenced by the Cristian school that I and my Hindu friends used to
wear dollar of infant Jesus and Mother Mary and attend mass in the church.Hence when i look back I feel i was completely influenced by the Cristian school teachers.But i feel one should not indoctrinate an
innocent and ignorant child with teaching and practices of any other religion than that which he is born with.

now when it comes to conversion i feel this is a controversial subject but i feel it is OK if there is no pressure put on the individual who converts to other
religion or not lured by some benefits(corruption) for converting. if the person feels some spiritual inclination
based on the teachings then i feel he could get converted to another religion.

When it comes to RSS, Bajrangdal, VHP, Ram Sena collectively called as Sang Parivar they are conservative hindu groups.As in
all religions there are conservative sections and liberal
sections.I feel the conservative sections of both communities(Hindus and Christians) have to introspect
themselves for what has happened in Orissa.

India is a big country and there are many Cristian institutions who
feel secure and happy.And there is a state in India

which is Goa which have 30% percent of the population to be Christians living happily.

Finally I want to say that there should be a debate on conversion whether it should take place or not if it so takes place how should
it take place(what are the justifiable reasons for
conversion) so that there is some clarity on the subject of conversion.which is I presume is the major cause of
all these kinds of conflicts.

I Pray for a law to be formed as soon as possible in the Indian judicial system which clearly defines justified conversion.

I pray God so that people leave their tough stands taken by them and move to some consensus over the
issue of conversion.

I pray god so that there be peace, love, harmony, health, knowledge
and prosperity all over the world.

let barriers be converted to bridges.
Let hate be converted to love.
Let sorrow be converted to joy.
let fear be converted to peace.
let ignorance be converted to knowledge.
let slavery be converted to freedom
let hell be converted to heaven.
Let untouchability be converted embrace.
let violence be converted to nonviolence.


Ben N said...

Pradeep, the test is simple my friend. Would they have done the same thing to Jesus?
you said: "now when it comes to conversion i feel this is a controversial subject but i feel it is OK if there is no pressure put on the individual who converts to other religion or not lured by some benefits(corruption) for converting. if the person feels some spiritual inclination
based on the teachings then i feel he could get converted to another religion."

Here is what Jesus said once:
"Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (LUKE 13:1-5)

Make no mistake about it, the gospel is the good news to some and horrible news to others.
There is only one justifiable reason for conversion and that is the truth.

Wes Walker said...

Pradeep, if you are still reading this thread:

some of your concerns about conversion are addressed in the comments to the previous day's post.

Ultimately, conversion is not a question merely of one's associations.

Conversion is a response to the realization that the truth claims made in the Bible are legitimate.

It is a belief of a sinful man (or woman) that he stands before a Holy God, and that price paid by Jesus Christ is the only thing in heaven or earth capable of reconciling the two.

Is is the renunciation of any beliefs that run contrary to that which is affirmed in the Christian Bible.

It is a supernatural, permanent change in the heart and mind of such a person that cannot be accomplished by any other means but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and His Atoning death, resurrection, and ascension.

TJ Smith said...

Thanks for highlighting the plight of our brothers and sisters here in India. They constantly face physical retribution for their public confession of Christ, even more so than those of us who are western. In UP and Bihar, we often hear of reliable stories wherein a family or community has been attacked by radicals for simply being followers of Jesus.
Thank you also for highlighting the complexity of "conversion" here. Conversion in India is a matter of political, social, communal, economic and spiritual significance.
Please continue to pray that national believers would humbly proclaim the living Christ and call all peoples to His Lordship. And pray that our Hindu friends would see the supremacy of Jesus and turn to follow Him.

Mark said...

As told by Benjamin Nitu and walker

Liberation or freedom from suffering and pain is obtained only by repentance for our sins and

surrendering to god and asking him for his forgiveness.As we know almighty lord represent

absolute love,truth,forgiveness,kindness...etc
The same facts which is mentioned in bible is also mentioned in various religions of the world that god exists and he is the supreme divine being.

This fact can also be found in bhagavad Gita(which the most famous Hindu religious and spiritual text which is similar to Bible for Christians)which is rendered by Lord

Krishna/krsna(Hindu God).Song of the Lord when literally translated to English speaks the same language
of love, surrender to the almighty and forgiveness.

As all water from the rivers move toward the ocean and they become one.All religious text reveal the same truth.

you can find some the similarities between Bible and Bhagwad Gita in the following links and you may get some better understanding of other religion.


Sharon said...

B.S. Pradeep:
As all water from the rivers move toward the ocean and they become one.All religious text reveal the same truth.

Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved!

(Acts 4:10-12)

Ben N said...

b.s.pradeep there's no question that Hinduism and even more Buddhism talk an awful lot about peace and harmony.I also agree with you that there is a lot of ignorance on both sides.
Hinduism tries to be all inclusive; however, I would argue that there are at least 2 central truths that every Hindu holds true: reincarnation (every birth is a rebirth) and Karma.

Now, to claim that Christianity and Hinduism have some things similar is true;however, there's much more essential beliefs on which they disagree.Christianity does not try to be all inclusive. Jesus was a very exclusive. Jesus claimed he was God, without sin, perfect in every way, savior.

You said: "All religious text reveal the same truth."
Well, by definition, truth is exclusive, otherwise it's not the truth. So when Hindusim talks about reincarnation and karma, whereas Christianity denies both, well ... they can't be both right.
You might claim that those are not essential; however, when Jesus talks about a real place called Heaven and a real place called Hell, he is either telling the truth or lying? Now, you can claim that the law of non-contradiction is a western invention; but to deny the law of non-contradiction you need to use the law of non-contradiction. So, it's "either or" but never "both".

It makes much more logical sense to say that all religions are false, than to claim that they're all true. So, as you can see my friend I might be wrong or you might be wrong, but we can't both be right.

I admire the religiosity and devoutness of Hindu people, but put yourself into the shoes of the Christian missionaries that believe that Hell is a real place and Jesus is a real savior. What would you do? If you knew that a hurricane comes, would you tell anyone? Or would you say: "Well, you see, they were raised believing that there's no hurricane so I shouldn't bother them."

In conclusion, the more you learn about Jesus the more you learn that he does not leave you undecided. You either believe him or you don't. You either love him or hate him. He is either a lunatic or He is who he said he was. That choice is in your hands, not your parents', your culture's or missionaries'. The missionaries just try to present everyone that choice, nothing more.