Christian support organizations have expressed unease at President Donald Trump’s warm reception for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given that the latter has overseen a surge in anti-Christian violence since coming into office in 2014.
But prominent evangelical leader Franklin Graham—a close confidant of Trump and the son of the late preacher Billy Graham—has argued that the president must befriend Modi to encourage improved conditions for the country’s 65 million Christians, recommending that in the meantime devotees pray for Modi to change his ways.
Trump welcomed Modi to the U.S. on Sunday, the two men attending the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, Texas and walking around the packed NRG stadium hand in hand and waving to the crowds.
Trump praised Modi as one of America’s “greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends,” while Modi said India had a “true friend” in the White House. “He has left a lasting impact everywhere,” Modi said of Trump, who he described as “warm, friendly, accessible, energetic and full of wit.”
Modi’s visit was met less enthusiastically by some Christian groups in the U.S. and in India, aware of the rising trend of violence against Christians in India driven by the government’s Hindu nationalist ideology.
Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has long sought to whip up tensions between the country’s majority Hindu population and their religious minority compatriots, more often than not focusing on the roughly 200 million Muslims living in India. In turn, the party’s associated Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh group—an extremist paramilitary organization of which Modi has long been a member—has led the persecution on the ground.
Modi’s own political career is smeared by allegations that, while chief minister of the northwestern Gujarat state in 2002, his state government allowed—and even incited—anti-Muslim rioting. Hundreds—possibly even thousands—of people were killed, most of them Muslims.
Such allegations meant that Modi was denied a visa to visit the U.S. in 2005 over concerns he was responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom,” the first person to ever be denied entry to the country on such grounds.
India’s 65 million Christians are increasingly living in fear. According to the Open Doors organization, which monitors persecution against Christians worldwide, harassment of and violence against these communities has become significantly worse under Modi.
Since 2013, the country has jumped from 31st to 10th place on Open Doors’ watch list, now sitting between Syria and Iran.
More than 12,000 attacks against Christians were recorded last year, and the organization’s latest report explained that for Hindu nationalists, “to be Indian is to be Hindu, so any other faith—including Christianity—is viewed as non-Indian.”
Andy Milligan, the U.K. director of the Mission India organization which works to establish churches in the country, said Hindu extremists “believe they can attack Christians with no consequence.” He added that “for some Indian Christians, being a Christian means dying for their faith.”
According to Open Doors CEO David Curry, much of the blame can be attributed to Modi. Curry told Newsweek that incidents of anti-Christian persecution have increased by 200 percent since Modi took office. Curry claimed “a clear connection to his ideals and ideology and the rise of religious persecution. His political party and allies have outlined their views, which clearly discriminate against Muslims and Christians.”
Vijayesh Lal, the director of the Religious Liberty Commission at the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Newsweek that while persecution of Christians “is not a new phenomenon in India,” it has increased since Modi came into office.
Lal said hate speech “including by government, regional authorities and elected officials” has increased since 2014, inciting Hindu nationalists to commit acts of violence.
“Political leaders promote the notion that non-Hindu ideas have no place in their country,” he added. “In several places, mobs have threatened Christians with violence and have attacked churches while the police have failed in protecting these same Christians and their property.”
Modi, meanwhile, has been “largely silent” on the issue. This, Lal said, “is more worrisome than the most gruesome and in-your-face hate speech by his party men and women, and gives rise to impunity that results in more violence against minorities.”
Law enforcement is little help against such tides, he added. Police and local government have been “infiltrated” by those loyal to RSS or those sympathetic to the group’s extreme Hindu nationalism. “That has made a big difference,” Lal explained.
At the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Trump delivered a speech calling on nations to respect religious freedom and end the persecution of minorities. He listed multiple instances of religious hate crimes—including the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, the suicide bomb attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and shootings as synagogues in in Pennsylvania and California.
In the speech, he named Graham as a source of support and inspiration. Now the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, Graham told Newsweek that the situation in India is “very troubling” for Christians, though said he supported Trump’s efforts to build a friendship with Modi.
Graham said Modi is the head of the largest democracy in the world “whether we agree with him and his policies or not,” arguing it was “very wise” of the president to try and befriend him.
“We can do more by building a relationship, than to try to be antagonistic,” he added. “I think Trump is a great negotiator, and I think he wants to befriend the prime minister so that he can influence him…This is the way you get things done.”
Modi did not attend Trump’s religious freedom speech at the United Nations on Monday, but Graham said he “hopes his people were listening.”
Graham suggested that, in the meantime, Indian Christians pray for Modi. “We’re commanded in scripture to pray for those that are in authority,” he explained. “We’ve got to believe God can change his heart, he can direct him. And I would encourage the Christians in India to pray for him, and we will certainly be doing the same thing in this country.”
But Curry, while acknowledging the importance of a warm relationship with India, added, “I don’t think this friendship requires us to overlook the human rights situation in India. In fact, it perhaps gives us more influence and we should use it to help religious minorities in India. If people believe the USA will look the other way on human rights, it will not help the Christians and Muslims in India.”
Instead, Curry suggested Trump—who he said “has championed religious freedom perhaps more than any other president—should help make the private discussions on religious freedom in India into the public discourse.”
Lal believes that Trump’s warm welcome for Modi was not about the man, but the country he represents and the economic and geopolitical opportunities that come with it. “It is not because of Mr. Modi, the person,” he argued.
“Although it would be interpreted as such and will go into building his personality cult back in India. This will also result in much chest-thumping on part of the Hindu nationalists in India but will make little difference to their targeting of Christians either positively or negatively.”
Though he suggested that the U.S. and other nations can remind India of its responsibility to protect personal and religious freedoms, Lal stressed, “the situation of minorities in India must be addressed by the Indian government as it is their responsibility.”
That said, he admitted he was “not confident that the Trump administration would even do the above. Publicly condemning Hindutva populism or even pressurizing the Modi government is expecting a lot more than just gently reminding the Indian government that the world is watching, and I do not see even that happening.”
“So no, the trip is not going to result in improving the situation of Christians or other minorities in India,” Lal concluded.
This article has been updated to include comments from Vijayesh Lal.