September 28, 2009
We are in the season in India when Hindu religious holidays and festivals are observed through October 17th which is Diwali, the last and biggest celebration. It is also a time as you might expect of heightened religious and national fervor, especially for some political entities that play that card hard.
Last year at this time, a young Noida reporter wrote a series of articles claiming the missionary elders were “converting” Hindus to Christianity. To convert in India carries a bad connotation and implies coercion, force, or bribery to get someone to change. It was claimed the elders were offering money, physically threatening people, etc. All of it made up and completely false. The last article published claimed the police were looking for the elders. That was when President Smith, Elder Godi, and Elder Desari made a visit to the Noida police chief to clear the air. During that interview, the chief claimed he knew of our church and believed those present when they stated we were not doing the things claimed in the paper. He also stated the police were not looking for the elders. On the way out, our group met the reporter who was there at the station and talked to him and asked why he wrote things that were not true. He admitted that some men had put him up to it as a politically motivated scheme.
As a result, one elder who lived above us at the time and who had not registered in Noida was immediately taken to Delhi. The other 3 elders were registered and ok. Foreign nationals are required to register wherever they are living and/or working in India. Sister Tanner and I are both registered in Noida. After laying low for a few days, the elders were back on the street again, but being very circumspect about who they approached and how they did it.
Now a year later, and it is déjà vu. The festival season is upon us and so is the attack, but with a new and serious element of concern this year. Two weeks ago a series of articles appeared that put out the same garbage all over again including the claim that the police were looking for the elders and named a police official. The same reporter is strongly suspected of this most recent media attack. This time President Smith and Elder Godi, who came over from Delhi, visited the police official named in the article. He claimed to know nothing about it and said the police were not looking for the elders. We thought that was the end of it. Not so.
Elder Hawks had his bicycle stolen late last week, so he and his companion were walking again. This morning around 10:30 AM, Elders Smith and Hawks had kept an appointment in sector 37, then walked to an adjacent sector 30 to attempt to locate an old contact. When they knocked on the door of the address they had, the house had a new occupant who invited them in. The occupant had lived in the US and was friendly and they talked for some time. When they left, he did not accompany the elders to the gate in front of the house which is the normal custom, but stayed at the front door. The elders passed into the street and began walking. Both elders are around 5’ 5-6”and have slender physiques, mighty in spirit, but not necessarily physically.
After walking a very short distance from the house, they were attacked from behind as someone put an arm around each elders head and then was joined by another individual so it became a one on one head lock situation. They were drug, pushed, shoved towards a side entrance to the sector where a car was waiting with two more individuals. The elders were punched and hit on the back, arms, and face and the scuffle continued to the car and at it although the elders were not fighting back. Elder Smith was trying to talk to their assailants, trying to find out what was going on, but if they knew English, they weren’t talking. He did, however, manage to get one of his assailants between himself and the car so he could not be pushed into it. Two men were trying to get Elder Hawks into the car and that is when the elders noticed that two of the men were carrying holstered guns, the driver and one of those trying to get them in the car. Elder Hawks kicked the man trying to push him into the car, grabbed the handhold above the door and pulled himself back out. About this time two police officers arrived on a motorcycle. There had been other people watching the melee, but did nothing to help the elders.
Long story short, the police called for backup and a vehicle and the elders wound up at the police station in our sector 39 along with at least two of their assailants who joked with and seemed to know the police. Within 5 minutes, reporters and photographers for several of the local Hindi newssheets appeared and began photographing the elders and trying to interview them. About 30 minutes later, a couple of TV crews showed to take pictures.
In the meantime, the elders had regained their cell phones and made a call that started a lot of action. I got a call from the mission President around 1 PM who told me what he knew and asked me to find out what I could. He indicated Elder Godi was on his way to the police station. I got a hold of Elder Godi and we agreed to go to the police station together. In the meantime, the other pair of elders showed up at our flat to take refuge, Elder Wille and Elder Tamang who is from Nepal. I met Elder Godi and his companion Elder Barrick down the street and asked Elder Barrick to go to our house and wait until we got back. I thought it best not to arrive at the police station with more people than necessary not knowing the entire situation at the time.
Before we got to the station, we did learn that the elders were apparently free to leave, but very wisely had insisted on staying until their friends arrived. There were a lot of people hanging around outside the station and the police had offered them an armed escort back to their apartment. When Elder Godi and I walked into the compound, there were around 9-10 guys milling around and talking just inside the wall and we got stares as we walked past and ignored them. When we walked into the station, we saw the elders sitting in an office in front to our right and a number of men sitting at a table in the hallway. The men did an obvious double take when an older, white man and an Indian walked up to them. They motioned to the office, so we spent minimal time with them and went in to see our elders.
Elder Hawks had received the worst of it, but was still reasonably ok based on physical appearances. I am sure both elders were feeling a bit traumatized from the experience and Elder Hawks needed aspirin later. We talked briefly and then three men entered the room. It was the head police guy at the station and two men from the city/state administrative offices. The conversation was in Hindi and the police officer stated the accusations against the elders, ie, converting, offering money, etc., which Elder Godi responded to and exposed as a falsehood. The police officer left after a short conversation. He was not in uniform and I understand he had stayed only because the elders refused to leave.
The other two men then began a long conversation in Hindi on the lack of registration of the elders. When he called, I had asked the President if he knew if the elders were registered in Noida and he didn’t know what I was talking about. In the change of mission presidents and changes in assistants, that necessity had somehow been lost. I told the officials, one spoke English, that we were obviously at fault for not having the elders registered and that it would be taken care of tomorrow. Elder Godi is a jewel, very mature, very professional, and very articulate. He had respect from the men he was talking to, even if one of them was trying to be the hardened bureaucrat.
At one point, I did ask point blank what they called it when four men, two of them armed, accost young men and try to force them into a car and in the process beat them up. I told them I would call it attempted kidnapping. What did they call it? I knew I wouldn’t get a straight answer, but I was surprised by what I did get. The question was essentially ignored, but it was explained that since the elders were not registered, then the police were unable to protect them. Yeah, right, just let the religious vigilantes run amok. From a stolen bicycle, to being followed and watched, to the planned attack at a location that could not have been known beforehand, to the obvious camaraderie between the assailants and the police, to the arrival of press within minutes at the police station, to the response from several other sources, this whole episode was a planned event. I have no doubt at all about it.
When we finally walked out of the police station, the group in the courtyard was gone and we just walked back to our flat. The elders all just hung out as phone calls and information was exchanged even to the President notifying parents to be sure they had the correct facts. News of the attack had actually gotten to the Area in Hong Kong by then and was getting wilder with each retelling. Sister Tanner provided food, even made pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and the rest of the afternoon went by quickly. Elder Barrick and Godi went back to Mayur Vihar before dark. The other elders stayed longer and I went with them when they returned to their house after dark, just to be sure no one was waiting around to hassle them. As we were leaving, Anil Verma, his niece, and daughter returned with Sister Tanner who had run over to see the burning of an image of Ravana from their car. Today is a holiday and the image burnings after dark are happening all over, but that is another story. Anil seemed certain no one was going to come into the sector to do anything, but I went with the elders anyway. I then walked home after stopping to buy some needed fruit and veggies at Mother Dairy on the way back. I add this to reassure those reading that I am not worried and not reckless, but then on second thought, I didn’t go through what Elder Hawks and Smith did either. I doubt either of them will be over their experience for some time and I will not be surprised if both are transferred back to Delhi, possibly as early as tomorrow.
I am so frustrated by the ability of the press to print outrageous lies with impunity and we can seemingly do nothing about it and then today for the police to apparently be involved in this attack for media purposes is even worse.
But this too shall pass. The Lord’s work will go on.