A new breed of missionary
A drive for conversions, not development, is stirring violent animosity in India.
JHABUA, INDIA — Biju Verghese believes the end of the world is coming. This faith makes his work urgent: Convert as many Indians to Christianity as possible. Or, as he puts it, "reach the unreached at any cost."
Mr. Verghese is a new breed of missionary, tied not to the mainline Protestant or Catholic churches that came with European colonizers but to expansionist evangelical movements in the US, Britain, and Australia. These newer Christians are now the most active here, swiftly winning over Indians like Verghese who in turn devote themselves to expanding the church's reach, village by village.
Aside from an attraction to the Christian message, some converts welcome the chance to free themselves from a low-caste status within Hinduism. Some may adopt Christianity by simply adding it to their existing beliefs. To others, conversions are a positive statement that you can choose your religious identity rather than have it fixed at birth.
But the success of recent Christian missionaries and their methods of quick conversions have brought tensions with other religions, including some Christians who fear that certain evangelicals are contributing to a volatile - and at times violent - religious atmosphere. The new missionaries put an emphasis on speed, compelled sometimes by church quotas and a belief in the approach of the world's end.
"Aggressive and unprincipled missionary work that exploits the distress and ignorance of marginalized groups ... can constitute a catalyst to localized violence, particularly when they are brought into confrontation with other" creeds, says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi.
Nationwide, India has a growing reputation for intolerance toward its religious minorities. The US Committee on International Religious Freedom listed India with 10 other nations of "particular concern" - a legacy of the months-long riots in Gujarat state, when nearly 1,000 Muslims were murdered by their Hindu neighbors.
Religions on the Indian subcontinent have jostled with each other for millenniums. Invaders spread Hinduism and Islam through conquest, followed by British Christians who hoped to create "brown Englishmen." The Christian zeal for conversions ebbed in India after a nearly successful Indian rebellion in 1857 and a theological trend toward good works, such as improving education and healthcare.
Some evangelical Christian groups in India are continuing in that tradition. The Evangelical Hospital Association, for instance, has taken over the management of many of the hospitals of Northern India that were built by mainstream Christian churches during the British colonial period. Graham Staines, an evangelical missionary, was famous for his work with lepers in the state of Orissa, before he was murdered in 1999 by Hindu mobs. His wife, Gladys Staines, this week accepted India's highest award for public service, for continuing this work.
Yet many of today's missionaries are returning to practices of proselytizing that were long ago abandoned by the mainline missionaries because they were seen as offensive.
"The church [during British rule] sought actively to communicate the values of the Renaissance with its Christian message," says Mr. Sahni. "And while conversion was a significant fact of the British period, the schools and other institutions set up by the missionaries were not primarily driven by the objective of conversion."
In recent years, however, conversion activity has grown more intense, driven by the evangelical Christians funded from abroad, and Hindu nationalists. Both are targeting the same groups: impoverished Dalits, formerly known as "untouchables," and adivasis, or tribal citizens, who have long practiced a religion predating Hinduism.
Nationwide, adivasis number nearly 67 million, or 8 percent of the nation's population. But here in the district of Jhabua, they are more than 80 percent of the population. Adivasis are also among India's poorest citizens, earning perhaps $4 per capita per month.
Amid Jhabua's rolling hills and low huts of mud stand Christian churches built 100 years ago.
But the conversion work that some call "aggressive" takes place outside the traditional places of worship. Evangelical and Pentacostal missionaries go village to village, holding prayer meetings in homes or preaching outdoors to all the villagers together.
These events often mix emotional messages of personal salvation, speaking in tongues, shaking in trances, and miraculous healings. Some people come for the spectacle; others take advantage of free food. After these performances, whole families, neighborhoods, and even villages are sometimes converted. The missionary leaders move on to the next village, leaving behind money - but sometimes little other support - for new church constructions and pastor salaries.
Verghese is pastor of the Beersheba Church of God in Jhabua. He shows a recent video CD, produced by Indian Evangelical Team (IET) leader P.G. Varghis, which makes it clear that conversion, not development, is the priority.
For Verghese and others who believe the Apocalypse could come at any moment, there is little time to carry out the kind of slow, development-oriented missionary work that mainstream churches focus on.
In the video, Mr. Varghis proudly mentions that the IET's 1,775 missionaries "planted" 2,000 churches in India in just five years, and planned to reach a goal of 7,777 churches by the year 2010.
In recent years, North India has been a key region of focus by informal networks of Christian evangelical groups in the West, with some churches drawing up quotas for new churches built, gospel literature handed out, and new missionaries trained.
"Christians are being killed," Varghis admitted in the video, "But we are dedicated to build North India for Christ."
The video, which is narrated in English and is apparently aimed at a Western audience, makes an emotional appeal for funds, noting that it costs $3,000 to $6,000 to build a church, a cost that is far beyond the means of the mainly tribal population that IET hopes to convert.
The differing approaches also came to light during recent tsunami relief efforts. A host of small Christian groups headed to India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka to distribute humanitarian aid along with Christian literature. Many faith-based aid groups, from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the American Jewish Foundation, avoid handing out such religious materials because of the potential to offend those who are of different faiths.
After the tsunami, the US National Council of Churches issued a statement warning against the practice by "New Missionaries" of mixing evangelism and aid. "Often lacking sophistication about the lure of gifts and money, and wanting to be generous with their resources, they easily fall prey to the charge of using unethical means to evangelize. This creates a backlash," the February statement read.
"You get this guy out of Texas who has no idea of the local culture, he is out to win souls, and he comes with a lot of money," says Bob Alter, former Presbyterian pastor born and raised in the Indian mountain town of Mussoorie, and former superintendent of a missionary institution, the Woodstock School.
The problem with these newer churches, Mr. Alter says, is the tone of their message. "You have Baptists using the Diwali festival [the Hindu festival of lights], but they come to 'spread the light to those in darkness.' That is mighty offensive stuff, when you're out to tear down another religion."
Anti-Christian violence in India, while rare, can be brutal. Mr. Staines was burned alive with his two young sons, when a mob, led by Hindu activist Dara Singh, set fire to his car in January 1999. Later that year, Hindu activists attacked and raped Roman Catholic nuns in several states, including Orissa, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh.
Christian missionaries in Gujarat have also faced numerous attacks, in a state where the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has taken the ethos of Hindutva (or Hinduness) to extremes. The US State Dept recently denied a visa to the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, to visit the US.
In this charged atmosphere, mainstream Christian churches have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the tactics used by their more assertive brethren.
"Even the older Protestant churches are unhappy with the evangelicals," says Bishop Chacko, head of the Roman Catholic diocese in Meghnagar in Jhabua district. "It is said that they are irresponsible. Consequences don't matter to them. They put the fire and then they leave it to burn."
In Jhabua, distrust of the Christian community led some Hindus to falsely assume Christian foul play in the murder of a 10-year-old Hindu girl named Sujata.
Her body was found Jan. 11, 2004, in the basement bathroom of the Roman Catholic Church's Mission School in Jhabua, where nearly 2,500 students - most of them Hindus - attend. It was immediately apparent that the girl had been raped.
Police suspicion quickly turned toward the Catholic priests themselves, and several priests were held in police custody for 46 hours without being charged and without food or water, although no charges were ever placed.
Two days later, after news of the murder began to circulate in local papers, Hindu activists began a campaign of agitation. One Hindu sadhu, or ascetic monk, planted himself in front of the church gates in protest. Thousands of Hindus joined him, some coming from neighboring towns and from as far away as Gujarat state.
Ram Shankar Chanchal Trivedi, a local schoolteacher and member of a Hindu nationalist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), says the brutality of the murder, and the appearance of Christian culpability, got local Hindus upset.
"She was a little girl who was brutally murdered, and people became emotional and aggressive; they couldn't tolerate it," says Mr. Trivedi sitting on a bed in simple middle-class home. He sighs. "People used to live happily here, but since the political leaders started taking advantage of the murder, it became a political issue."
Now that police have arrested a young drifter - a Hindu from Indore - who admitted to killing Sujata, Trivedi says that the Jhabua riots are a closed matter. But the tensions between the Hindu and Christian communities remain.
The biggest problem, he says, is the new wave of Christian conversions, which offends many Hindus.
"Adivasis are Hindus," Trivedi says, using the Hindi word for tribal. "Tribal people are illiterate, they don't know about religion. So Hindu people object because they are bothering tribal people who can't defend themselves. The tribals can be tempted by money, they should not be exploited."
He pauses. "It will become dangerous if conversion activity continues. It can be a big issue unless other churches don't make it clear to these people that conversion must stop."
For the Rev. Mahipul Bhuriya, a parish priest and a member of a major local tribe, the Bhils, there is danger from both the Hindu right and from the Christian evangelicals.
"I have been drawing a line between good churches that serve and bad churches that are only interested in conversion," says Father Bhuriya. "I tell people, 'I belong to a church that does not breed hatred,' and my Hindu friends are beginning to understand."
In his small Jhabua apartment, Verghese says that violence will not deter him from doing what he sees as God's work.
He adds that RSS activists burned 25 houses in the town of Ali Rajpur in retaliation for the murder of Sujata, and 14 members of his church have been jailed, blamed for the shooting death of an RSS activist.
Far from being terrorized, Verghese says his followers have been strengthened by the riots.
"There is some fear, yes, but the believers have more fear of the Word of God," he says, bouncing his 4-year-old daughter Praisey on his knee.
"There are some people who know very well that the moment Christian missionaries leave, their social development will stop. All the best schools, the best hospitals, are run by missionaries," he says, referring to schools like the Catholic Mission School, built by older, mainstream churches.
"But there are also people who know very well that when the adivasis are better educated and have better lives, they cannot be exploited anymore," Verghese says. "And that is the main reason for the violence against Christians."
Many Christians agree that the Hindu reaction against Christian missionaries is more deeply rooted in economics than in religion.
Historically, higher-caste Hindus treated tribesmen as inferior, and reinforced this in their economic relations. Most tribal people were unable to own their own land, so they farmed land owned by Hindus. As illiterate sharecroppers, tribesmen were kept subservient. As worshipers of ancestors and animals, tribal people were seen as backward.
But in recent years, the RSS and other Hindu nationalist groups have begun to reach out to adivasis, partly to prevent their conversion to other faiths, and partly to expand their political bases.
Now, RSS activists distribute Hindu idols in tribal villages and teach adivasis how to worship during Hindu festivals such as Ganpati, the festival of Ganesh. Similarly, the RSS's political ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has begun heavy recruitment of adivasis, an effort seen as crucial in winning state elections in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003.
Heavyweight political players like Narendra Modi of neighboring Gujarat state campaigned in Jhabua district, promising that a state BJP government would use Gujarat as a "Hindutva model" for its rule in Madhya Pradesh. BJP supporters say that he was referring to Modi's strong economic record.
Critics saw something darker, the use of Hindu mobs to attack religiou1s minorities, as occurred in the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Ajai Sahni says there is no short-term solution to the problem, as long as religious identity is a major tool for mobilizing Indian voters at election time, and as long as every major party uses religious fears and prejudices to organize their support.
"One measure that is needed, however, is a very harsh law to punish those who engage in communal violence," says Mr. Sahni. "Such a law has long been overdue in India."