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New campaign in India may be proof of Gospel’s progress

DANGS, India (BP)–A new campaign against the conversion of Hindus to Christianity is “evidence of success” for the spread of the Gospel in India, a Christian worker there says.

Militant Hindu leaders mounted a major gathering in February in the northwestern state of Gujarat, the scene of many violent attacks on Christians and Muslims in recent years. The three-day “Shabari Kumbh Mela” attracted more than 400,000 Hindus to the Dangs district of Gujarat, home to as many as 60,000 tribal Christians. Billed as a worship gathering, the event raised major concerns among Indian Christians, who saw it as an attempt to intimidate -– or force -– tribal believers into “reconverting” to Hinduism.

The festival featured calls for an end to evangelistic efforts in Gujarat and accusations that church workers are bribing poor tribal Hindus to convert to Christianity.

It ended with only one minor “skirmish” between Hindus and local Christians, news reports said. But Gujarat state officials have declared they will push for new “anti-conversion” laws and press tribal Christians to return to Hinduism. Radical Hindu groups also reportedly plan to hold similar events in other Indian states.

“It is nice that the Kumbh has passed off peacefully, but the inflammatory speeches delivered during the three days have sown seeds of possible conflicts,” said a statement issued by the Church of North India. “This has created an environment of fear for us.”

A Christian worker with contacts throughout the giant south Asian nation, however, has a more upbeat perspective.

“Frankly, I look at it as evidence of success,” the worker said. “The fact that so many Hindus are coming to Christ is a major reason [Hindu nationalists] are trying to put these anti-conversion laws in place. That’s a good sign.”

The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was swept out of power in national elections in 2004 by the more secular Congress Party and has been losing momentum ever since. In the state of Tamil Nadu, for example, a hard-line BJP government won re-election that year -– but only barely. State leaders quickly moved to repeal an anti-conversion law in place there.

“India has a strong commitment historically to democracy,” the worker said. “A lot of Indians feel very uneasy about saying people cannot convert to another religion or have to get permission from a magistrate to convert. This is evidence of the success of the Gospel. Islam is bringing in a lot of converts, too — not necessarily because they like Islam; they’re just tired of being untouchables. They’re tired of being outcasts.”

India remains overwhelmingly Hindu. At least 80 percent of its 1 billion-plus people are Hindus. The Christian worker and other observers agree, however, that the radical ideal of a “pure” Hindu India clashes with several powerful realities: India is a democracy. It is a rapidly growing global economic power. And it is home to at least 130 million Muslims (more than any other single country besides Indonesia), more than 24 million Christians and an incredibly varied collection of other faiths and cultures.

The ancient Hindu caste system was outlawed by India’s constitution when the modern nation was founded, but it persists in most parts of the country. High-caste Hindus in some areas depend on it for continued economic and social domination of lower castes –- and the Dalits (untouchables), who have languished in near-slavery for many generations.

“Caste Hinduism requires isolation and insulation from the outside world to exist,” the worker said. “You must have no other choice to remain a Dalit, or untouchable. What’s happening now is the modern world, with its globalization, is bringing opportunities, knowledge and options. These anti-conversion laws are the desperate, last-ditch effort of Hindu conservatives to hold onto a world where there are no choices. The weight of history and global economics is bringing their system crashing down around them, and they’re trying to hold onto their status and a worldview that cannot survive in the 21st century.”

But Hindu extremism still packs a powerful punch in places such as Gujarat. In 1998, militants organized brutal attacks on tribal converts in the Dangs district, which the Evangelical Fellowship of India calls the “epicenter of the war against Christianity in Gujarat.” More than 1,000 Gujarati Muslims were massacred by Hindus in 2002 –- drawing worldwide condemnation.

From the platform of the “Shabari Kumbh Mela” in February, Hindu nationalist leaders repeatedly warned Indian Christians and missionaries to cease outreach –- and exhorted converts to “come home” to Hinduism.

The official event ended peacefully, but “now is when the real persecution begins,” said another Christian observer. “The fiery rhetoric of the opening ceremonies was aimed at 150,000 ‘sadhus.’ These Hindu followers don’t have jobs or families; they have devoted their lives to living as wandering beggars, visiting all the Hindu holy shrines and temples. Part of the Mela ceremonies included placing Hindu flags on the homes of all practicing Hindus. Now that the event is over, the sadhus plan to stay behind and go from house to house, pressuring the residents to either be more devout in their Hindu faith or renounce Christianity and ‘return home.’

“While the threat of mass violence seems to have passed, these next few months could be terrible times of individual persecution and one-on-one threats as sadhus make their way through each village.

The only real protection Hindu converts to Christ can count on is prayer.

Hindu nationalists reportedly plan major festivals in at least four other states. The trend marks the beginning of a “new experiment” in mobilizing Hindu forces against Christian conversions, according to one Indian newspaper.

Will it work?

“It would work if they could put a fence around Gujarat and other states, but that’s not going to happen,” the worker said. “If people are treated like untouchables in one state, they’ll flee across the border to another state and work there. These states can no longer afford to be discriminatory. It ends up hurting their economies. India’s economy has been growing 9 or 10 percent for each of the last three or four years. That’s going to change everything. They’re going to have to loosen up some things, like these anti-conversion laws. They just won’t stand.”

Christians worldwide, meanwhile, need the courage -– and vision -– to tell people in India about Jesus.

“If we would do our job and take the Gospel to these places and give people a viable option, we would see the masses of people turn,” the Christian worker said. “All it takes is people like us going in and sharing what we’ve been living with all our lives -– the Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s love. Once they hear it, they respond to it, and it turns the world upside down. This is harvest time in India. We need to be bold.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges