Just under five feet tall, Kusum,* a young woman from Central India, is wearing an emerald-green sori, accompanied by a dupatta scarf that’s lavender, gold, and green. She has a small nose piercing—a gold pendant with three small beads.
Kusum represents her country—known for its brilliant colors and traditions—well. But there’s one thing that sets her apart.
She’s a Christian. Not a Hindu.
Kusum was born into a Hindu family, but when she was 11 years old she secretly attended a Christian church service and converted to Christ. For Kusum, this faith has been the reason for both unspeakable persecution and relentless hope.
With more than a billion people in India, Christians are only 5 percent of the population. And life for these Christians is becoming increasingly difficult—and, at times, even dangerous.
In many ways, India is like a powder keg of Christian persecution.
Shifting Tolerance in India
The election of Prime Minister Modi in 2014 was seen by many as a tacit acceptance of Hindu nationalism—essentially, the belief that India must be a Hindu nation, and other religions are not welcome. If anything, Modi’s acceptance of religious extremism has only increased since his electoral victory. Some radical leaders in the nationalist government have even declared war on non-Hindu religions—seeking to eradicate Christianity, Islam, and all other religions from the country by the year 2021.
In addition, India almost broke the top 10 on the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List, a research report on the most oppressive countries for Christians. Due to the rise of Hindu extremism against Christians, India moved up to number 11, right behind Iran and Yemen.
With the rise of Hindu nationalism, Christians—and Muslims—are in a precarious environment. If they embrace their own religion, they in many ways forfeit their citizenship as true Indians.
Women like Kusum, who live in a rural environment, are often embedded in majority-Hindu villages that embrace the sentiments of Hindu nationalism, sometimes with force.
As is the custom in her country, Kusum married at a young age and had her first child, a boy, at just 16 years old. Four years later, Kusum had a second son, and shortly after his birth her husband became deathly ill and passed away. The others in her village knew that Kusum was a Christian and that she tried to persuade her husband to go to church with her. So, instead of comforting her in her loss, the people in Kusum’s village believed that her Christian faith was to blame for her suffering, bringing a curse on the village.
“They blamed me for his death,” Kusum says.
India, once known for its focus on civil rights and tolerance with activist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, has drifted far from any celebration of religious freedom today.
Gandhi once said, “Tolerance is the only thing that will enable persons belonging to different religions to live as good neighbors and friends.” But that was yesterday’s India. Even though the Indian constitution affirms religious freedom, the reality is increasingly much different.
Loss and Persecution
After the passing of her husband, Kusum did her best to provide for her two sons, but her faith turned out to be an obstacle. When employers discovered Kusum was not a Hindu, but a Christian, things often turned quickly. “First, I worked as a cook, and then they fired me,” Kusum shares. “Then I got a job at a school, but was again kicked out. They told me it was because I refused to recant my faith in Jesus.” For the next five years, Kusum struggled to earn money to feed her boys.
Then, in the summer of 2015, tragedy struck again. Doctors diagnosed her youngest son with sickle cell anemia, and he later passed away. She was broken.
When she returned home from the hospital to bury her son’s body, the people in her village wouldn’t allow it. In a trembling voice, Kusum remembers their words: You brought this curse upon your family. Because of your faith, your husband and your son are dead!
In the end, the leaders of the village forced her to take her son’s body to the outskirts of town and made it known that no one was allowed to help her. So, alone, Kusum carried her son. She dug the hole. She lowered her 5-year-old in and covered it with dirt. “I was all by myself,” Kusum says.
Later, at home, she heard a knock on the door. It was her father-in-law. He was angry and threatening to kill her, waving an ax in his hand. He blamed Kusum for the death of his son and grandson, due to her Christian faith. Fearing for her life, Kusum withdrew to a corner of her home and silently prayed.
“I had only one certainty,” she says. “I would not betray Jesus. Despite all the tragedies, he has never disappointed me.”
In the end, her father-in-law walked away and took his ax with him. To this day, she doesn’t know if he will come back to kill her or if others will.
Still broken from her son’s death, she says, “I miss him so much. I hear him talk. I see him. I feel him here on my lap. I know from the Bible that God will not bring him back to me, but one day I will be brought to him. God gives me strength.”
Kusum represents millions of Christians seeking religious freedom in India today. We don’t know what the future holds, but for Christians in India it will likely come with a price.
Stories like this are happening all over the world every day. Christians are marginalized, oppressed, beaten, tortured, and sometimes even killed for their faith. Stories like Kusum’s remind us to engage the global body of Christ through prayer, support, and solidarity.
After all, if one part suffers, we all suffer. If one part rejoices, we all rejoice.
Today, Kusum is living in the same village on her own while her oldest son is staying at a boarding school to receive an education. The villagers are still not accepting of her religion, but she is surviving. “God gives me strength,” Kusum says.
She adds, “I’m thankful I’m counted worthy to suffer for Jesus.”
*Representative name used for security.