The Times of India
Wednesday, October 13, 1999

Mission Impossible
Putting an End to Conversion Activity

By M V KAMATH

On the night of January 22/23, Christian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two young sons were burnt to death in Manoharpur, a remote village in Orissa. On September 1, another Christian priest, Fr Arun Doss was killed at Jambani village, also in Orissa. In the past month, several incidents of burning of churches have been reported, almost all of them in tribal areas in Orissa and Gujarat.

Some time ago, church authorities released a long list of atrocities perpetrated against Christians in different parts of India and at different times. The cumulative impression sought to be driven home is that minorities are no longer safe in India. This is an ominous development. Orissa's director-general of police Dilip Mahapatra has been quoted as saying that Fr Doss had received a "number of complaints and evidence" to the effect that the priest was involved in "illegal conversions" in violation of the Orissa Freedom of Religions Act, 1967.

Under the Orissa law and a similar law passed in Madhya Pradesh, missionaries are clearly under an obligation to inform the authorities of their conversion efforts. Incidentally, these laws were upheld by a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the Rev Stanilaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh (AIR 1977 SC 908). The law makes it mandatory for the concerned religious priest to give a 15-day notice for the "ceremony of conversion" and intimate the time and place along with the names and addresses of those intended to be converted.

Far from Prying Eyes

Christian missionary efforts at conversion under the guise of social work do not take place in places, say, like the Brahmin-dominated ward of Mylapore in Chennai. They are conducted in poor, illiterate and innocent tribal areas and in remote jungles far from the prying eyes of authority. Now a reaction seems to have set in. Writing in The Statesman (March 12, 1999), Mr B P Saha made the point that "growing enlightenment has been provoking them (tribals) to dislike conversion and look askance at the foreign missionaries, the so-called benefactors".

Attempts at conversion should be considered a mortal assault on local cultures and should be totally banned. Conversions are forbidden by law in China. Here we take a lenient view of conversion and Christian bodies have been taking advantage of the Hindu sense of tolerance. According to Mr Jon Stock, New Delhi correspondent of the British paper The Daily Telegraph, "put simply, the Indian subcontinent has become the principal target for a wide range of western Christian missions which are determined to spread the gospel to India's 'unreached' people before the year 2000".

Writing in The Spectator, Mr Stock says: "There is little doubt that the current communal tension in India would not be serious if foreign-funded missionaries had been content with giving Indians the choice of Christianity and left it at that."

According to Mr Stock, "hundreds of thousands of dollars are being channelled into India through well-organised, America-based evangelical missions", the meticulously researched ethnographic data they are compiling on the region ensuring that funds are being directed "with military precision to the right area, even to specific pin codes in remote tribal districts".

Mr Stock quoted a statement from a Colorado-based Group of World- wide Christian Missions calling itself AD 2000 and Beyond as saying: " 'Flashes of light' seen all around the North India-Hindu belt, particularly among the tribal groups, are encouraging us to believe that the Sum of Righteousness is indeed ready to rise upon these unreached peoples."

Violence Justified

AD 2000 and Beyond described Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city as full of temples dedicated to Shiva "an idol whose symbol is a phallus", and as a city whom many (?) consider the "very seat of Satan". One Rev R V Paricha has been described (Observer, March 24, 1999) as having authored a plan, on behalf of 94 Christian organisations, to target Orissa for conversion efforts, on the grounds that the caste structure of Orissa lacks the polarisation of the high-and-low caste characteristics of South India.

The Constitution clearly says (Article 25, Freedom of Conscience etc) that "all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion" but what is forgotten is that this right is "subject to public order, morality and health". If conversions or attempts at conversion lead to public disorder, the government has a duty sternly to deal with guilty missionaries. If the government does not step in on liberal pretenses, then violence can be predicted even justified by insulted citizens. It is time that Christian missionaries understand that India -- and Hinduism -- cannot be taken for granted.

It is pertinent to record what Christian missionaries did in Goa during the Inquisition. All the Inquisition's activities were conducted in strict secrecy, replete with "impenetrable arcane terminology fiendishly discrepant logic and autonomous questioning?" Paul William Roberts in Empire of the Soul, Some Journeys in India (Riverhead Books, New York) says,"Children were flogged and slowly dismembered in front of their parents whose eyelids had been sliced off to make sure they missed nothing. Extremities were amputated carefully, so that a person could remain conscious even when all that remained was a torso and a head...Those subjected to diabolical tortures could also be counted in the thousands and the abominations continued until a brief respite in 1774...The evil resumed (four years later) continuing, almost incredibly, until June 16, 1812. At that point British pressure put an end to terror, the presence of British troops stationed in Goa enforcing it".

Mere Apology

The Church had a special way of dealing with converted Hindus who were suspected of not observing Christian rites with appropriate rigour and enthusiasm, or even of covertly practising their old faith. They were the revertidos, the alleged backsliders with their cut-out idols and furtive cremations. According to Roberts (p.89), "the culprits would be tracked down and burnt alive".

The Church archives should be able to produce instances of all the ghastly atrocities that missionaries perpetrated in Goa in the name of Christ. These archives should be opened for study -- and publication in full. A mere apology is not enough. The Pope owes it to Goa, Hindus in general and India in the larger context to give a full account of what Christianity had perpetrated in our country. Above all, a total stop must be ordered of conversion activities.

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