Hindu villagers have also stopped worshippers from coming to services, with threats that they would be brutally attacked if they continued gathering.
Attacks and harassment of a house church in southern India have decimated the 40-member congregation and left the pastor injured and demoralized.
Pastor Eswara Rao Appalabattula on Jan. 27 pleaded with about a dozen local residents to stop building a wall meant to block people from attending worship services at his home in L.B. Patnam village, Andhra Pradesh.
Led by a local Hindu extremist, the group attacked him, breaking his hand, he said.
“They wanted to build a wall right in front of the church and ban us from using the path”, Pastor Appalabattula told Morning Star News.
“I pleaded with them to not do so. But the group of at least six neighbors, both male and female, punched me in my stomach several times and pushed me to the floor.”
They picked up a wooden pole and started beating his hands repeatedly with it, he said. “I was lying there on the floor screaming for help”, he said. “My wife came running and begged them to stop beating me – it was traumatic”.
The attack topped a month of hostilities and years of opposition against the pastor and his wife, who are in their 60s, from Hindu villagers furious at the presence of a church in their community.
On Jan. 5, a Hindu priest had led them to his home, where they threatened to kill his wife, Karuna Appalabattula, as she was doing chores outside, she said.
“I did not go to fight with them – but I was panicked”, Karuna Appalabattula told Morning Star News. “I did not know what to do. I asked them, ‘What is this you are doing? Why are you after us?’”
The Hindu priest picked up a large log of wood and came running toward her, she said.
“He kept screaming that he would kill me”, she said. “I was crying for help. But their priest abused me in extremely foul language. They called me names they would never use for a mother, wife, sister or any female member of their families. He called me a Christian prostitute and warned me that he would kill my husband.”
Trembling in fear, she and her husband locked themselves inside the house, she said.
Pastor Appalabattula said the Hindu villagers had stopped worshippers from coming to services throughout January.
“They would threaten and abuse them in foul language and not let them even park their motorbikes in the area”, he said. “Even before they stop at the church, they are chased and sent away”.
POLICE: ‘RESOLVE IT YOURSELF’
He informed a police official, who only told him to peacefully resolve the matter himself.
“He told me that these issues between religious groups may cause riots and advised me not to escalate the matter”, Pastor Appalabattula said.
“We had kept quiet and were busy with the ministry, but the following Friday [Jan. 7] and the Sundays on Jan. 12, 19 and 26, the members of the church were stopped on the road and were threatened that they would be brutally attacked if they continued gathering in L.B. Patnam village”.
Throughout the month Hindu villagers shouted obscenities when passing their home, trying to provoke them into a fight, Karuna Appalabattula said.
“Not only were our lives but the lives of believers who come for prayers also in danger”, she said. “That entire month, they did not allow us to be at peace”.
On Jan. 27, they informed police that the Hindu villagers had begun digging a trench for construction of the wall. Officers arrived only after the ensuing attack, she said.
Police told her to order a motorized rickshaw taxi to take Pastor Appalabattula to the hospital, they said, adding that a church member who had also been beaten wanted to accompany them, but officers told him to flee for his life.
At the village clinic, doctors said they did not have facilities adequate to treat him and suggested they go to the larger hospital in Vizag town.
“I telephoned some of the church members, but they were scared that they too may come under the attack”, Karuna Appalabattula said. “The doctors at the town hospital in Vizag informed us that his right hand has been fractured.”
Officers at the Cheedikada police station registered a First Information Report (FIR) against 11 villagers but not the Hindu extremist leader, Suresh Panchata, Pastor Appalabattula said.
He said he reminded officers that he had complained to them several times since 2011 about Panchata, an upper-caste Hindu, and about telephone threats he had received the previous day.
“But the officials told me that the FIR had already been registered, and that later during investigation they would add his name”, he said.
“Suresh Panchata has high political links and had been instigating the Hindu priest and villagers that the church activities disturb the Hindu rituals and traditions followed in the village.”
Cheedikada police booked the suspects under Indian Penal Code sections for house trespass, voluntarily causing hurt using dangerous weapons, voluntarily causing hurt and acts done by several persons with common intention.
“My wife and I witnessed drug and alcohol addicts, and the sick, come to Christ, and then they had refused to be a part of Hindu rituals in the village”, Pastor Appalabattula said. “This did not go well with Panchata and his aides”.
Vishakhapatnam District Pastors Association members met with police and urged them to investigate fairly, the pastor said.
As he and his wife were going to the hospital for a check-up on Feb. 4, some of the 12 assailants who had attacked the pastor sped by on motorbikes and pushed him, knocking them down on the road, he said.
Police then provided two officers, but they left after two hours, the pastor said.
“They told me that, ‘Your God has to protect you – when your God is not protecting you from your attackers, what can we do staying here?’” Pastor Appalabattula told Morning Star News.
“I told them that it was my God who had been protecting me, if not I would not have been alive in front of you”.
DECIMATED AND DEMORALIZED
The attacks have left the couple feeling lonely and deserted, they said. Youths and Christians from neighboring villages who used to come to their home daily for worship and hours of fellowship are too fearful to come now, Karuna Appalabattula said, tears in her eyes.
“They were like our own children”, she said. “I would prepare meals and feed them. We sang and worshipped together…We both are very old and weak and are in need of prayers and suppor”
“I am ready to die for Christ. But the ministry we had started here has come to a sudden halt”, he said. “Not even four members are gathering for Sunday worship. The believers have been very scared, and nobody dares to come and see us.”
Legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom-India has contacted officers at Cheedikada police station and urged them to provide security for the house church. ADF-India’s allied lawyers had organized legal seminars and awareness campaigns in Andhra Pradesh last year.
Pastor Appalabattula, formerly a carpenter who built the house where the church worships, had returned to his home village of L.B. Patnam in 2011 after dedicating himself full-time to ministry in Vishakapatnam District.
“At first, in the year 2011, they had demolished the newly constructed structure, and we had to rebuild it”, he told Morning Star News. “The upper-caste Hindus have been opposing the ministry here since the day the church was established”.
India ranks 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has worsened since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.