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Brutal Attacks On Nuns Put India's Christians On Edge


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into office pledging to crackdown on religious intolerance. Religious minorities in India, Muslims and Christians, welcomed the message because the prime minister is a member of the Hindu Nationalist Party; a party with long history of stirring up religious tensions. In the year since Modi took office, Muslims have grown anxious over a barrage of bigoted statements, and Christians are uneasy over a series of attacks on churches. NPR's Julie McCarthy examines an especially violent case in one Christian community.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The events that transpired this spring inside the Jesus and Mary Convent School alarmed Indians of all faiths. Police in the town of Ranaghat, in the state of West Bengal, say that a criminal gang broke in after midnight and took three nuns who lived there hostage. Thomas D'Souza, archbishop of Calcutta, two hours away, picks up the story.

D'SOUZA: They tied all the sisters to chairs along with their security guard.

MCCARTHY: He says the men then singled out the eldest nun, taking her from room to room in search of money. In a spree that lasted some three hours, they robbed the school, desecrated the chapel and raped the 71-year-old mother superior.

Was Sister Gladys protecting other nuns?

D'SOUZA: I heard, you know, she was saying, please don't do anything, you know, to others. Please don't do anything. And so, she was pleading for the others.

MCCARTHY: The archbishop says the community of some 7,000 Christians was more enraged than frightened.

D'SOUZA: Certainly, the sisters were terrified, I can tell you that. I was there, you know, it was terrible, terrible, they were terrified. But among the people, initially, more than fear, there was anger.

MCCARTHY: It emerged that in the week running up the attack, the nuns had complained to the police about threatening phone calls. But police took no action. After the March 14 incident, residents spilled into the streets demanding justice for the man captured on the school's CCTV footage.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We want justice. We want justice. We want justice.

MCCARTHY: Christians in Ranaghat could be forgiven if they'd blamed the Hindu Right. Close associates of their own chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, called the convent attack the fault of Narendra Modi's BJP party for stirring religious fanaticism. Modi came to power last year with the backing of Hindu fundamentalists. Since then, those followers have pushed a Hindu agenda that would restrict what people can and cannot eat, read, watch or study. They've called churches mere factories for conversion. Modi began his second year in office this month, warning, in unusually stern terms, that his government will not tolerate discrimination against any religion. Bengali businessman Terrance Mandel applauds Modi's remarks and adds that he's more threatened by Hindu fundamentalists as an Indian citizen than he is as a Christian.

TERRANCE MANDEL: As an Indian Christian, I'm not really afraid of the right-wing extremists taking over the country because that cannot happen. That goes against the very grain of Indian-ness. All Indians are disgusted with this disturbing trend - targeting, hate, vandalization of Christian churches - all Indiands, not just Christians.

MCCARTHY: Manya Biswas stands in the kitchen of her home, just across from the ransacked Jesus and Mary School. It's her teenage daughter's school. As a Christian, Biswas is apprehensive about Hindu zealots who publicly intimidate religious minorities. But she sounds more afraid of being the victim of robbers or sexual predators. With Biswas's husband away working in the Middle East, as many men here are, religious polarization is not foremost on her mind.

MANYA BISWAS: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "We're fearful, mostly, because our men are working overseas and women are home alone, but what can we do? We have to eat. So our husbands are abroad," Biswas says. Christians in West Bengal seem more willing to entertain the possibility that the robbery and rape of the convent was a heinous act by thugs, rather than a religious hate crime by extremists. Detective-like, they ponder motives. Were there local conspirators with a grudge against the nuns? Had the nuns' defense of the poor rub someone the wrong way? Sister Cyril a Catholic nun, who came to India from Ireland in 1956, says she's not one bit worried and adds that many Hindus have commiserated with her and taken the Christians' side.

SISTER CYRIL: So, for me, it's a very good thing. It means is that Christians are recognized as a good body here in India and that the good that is being done by the Christian church in terms of education, hospitals, health, care of the poor - all these things are being recognized by all right-minded people.

MCCARTHY: Senior investigators in West Bengal tell NPR that an eight- to 10-member criminal gang, from across the border in Bangladesh, carried out the convent attack and that five men are now in custody, with several having been identified by the nuns. The West Bengal case sheds light on the complexities on faith and fear in India, how the very nature of Indian-ness - pluralistic, multireligious - sits at the core of a community's concerns, how that community's students, businessmen and clergy can recite the Constitution on the right of every Indian to profess, practice and propagate their religion. Again, Archbishop Thomas of Calcutta.

D'SOUZA: As a democracy and as a secular country, we can coexist - Christians, Hindus, Muslim, Jain, Sikhs, Buddhists - that is a beauty. That and all need to be protected by the government as per the constitutional rights.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, West Bengal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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