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A new breed of missionary

A drive for conversions, not development, is stirring violent animosity in India.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2005


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."

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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.

Colonial legacy

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.