Missionaries tread warily in India

The conviction Monday of an evangelist's killers does not ease fears among Christians and minorities.

Like many Christian evangelists in India, the Rev. Richard Howell welcomed Monday's conviction of 13 radical Hindus involved in the murder of an Australian missionary family.

In 1999, Graham Staines and his two young sons were burned alive in their station wagon in the countryside of Orissa by a mob angry over Mr. Staines's aggressive evangelism in this Hindu- majority state.

But despite justice in one case, Mr. Howell says he and his followers cannot rest easy. Since Staines's murder, the number of attacks on Christians and other minorities has actually increased, he says, and the number of laws restricting religious practice has gathered pace across the country. These laws are being pushed by India's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party that holds power in many states and controls the central government.

"There are attacks practically every week, maybe not resulting in death, but still, violent attacks," Howell says. "They [the BJP] have created an atmosphere where minorities do feel insecure."

Far more than a mere murder trial, the Graham Staines case rapidly became a cause célèbre for human rights groups, secular Indians, and missionaries. At stake, these groups said, was nothing less than modern India's founding principle of secularism that favors no one religion but protects all.

Conservative Hindu analysts retort that the murders, while horrible, were a predictable reaction to secularism run rampant, fortifying the rights of India's minorities to the detriment of the Hindu majority and its culture.

It's this very debate - between secularism and Hindu nationalism - that remains the driving force of Indian politics today and seems destined to keep India's many religious groups at odds for years to come.

"We are seeing a broad attempt to stifle religious minorities and their constitutional rights," says Prakash Louis, director of the secular Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, which provides health and education services to India's lower-caste and tribal communities. Mr. Louis decries the passage of anticonversion laws in the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, and other laws that restrict cultural or religious practices, such as the slaughter of cows or the eating of beef.

"There is a fascist tendency toward authoritarianism in this country, and it is not just the BJP or the Sangh Parivar [a coalition of Hindu groups]," says Louis, noting that Congress Party politicians also have spoken in favor of such laws. "Today, they say you have no right to convert. Tomorrow, you have no right to worship in certain places, like the Babri Masjid."

Backdrop of violence

The Babri Masjid, built 500 years ago, was torn down by a mob of Hindu activists in 1992, an act that set off riots nationwide that killed thousands. A special court in Lucknow is expected to announce Friday whether it will file charges against several top BJP politicians, including current Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, for instigating the Babri Masjid destruction.

Citing the Babri Masjid case and the Gujarat riots of 2002, which followed the torching of a train-car full of Hindus by a mob of Muslims, Hindus argue that the violent riots of the past decade are the result of pent-up anger by the Hindu community after hundreds of years of provocations by a series of invaders, first the Muslim Moguls and later the British Christians.

In his influential book, "Harvesting Our Souls," Arun Shourie writes that India's minorities take actions that provoke India's Hindu majority.

"The conversion of even an individual causes grave disruption," writes Mr. Shourie, who now serves as India's minister for disinvestment of state-owned industries. "His family is torn apart. Tensions erupt in the community.... The individual is led to not just repudiate but denounce gods and rituals in which he has grown up."

Targeting the poor

Shourie also notes that while Christians make up a small percentage of the population, perhaps 2.1 percent in the most recent census, they are focusing on India's poorest, least-educated population, especially the Dalit community, who once were called "untouchables." By some estimates, Dalits and other lower-caste Hindus make up more than 40 percent of the population here in India.

With financial backing from churches in the world's richest nations, Shourie and other Hindu intellectuals argue, Western churches can shift the balance of religion in India forever.

A 1999 visit by Pope John Paul II made many Hindus suspicious, especially his statement to attending bishops, "The heart of the Church in Asia will be restless until the whole of Asia finds its rest in the peace of Christ, the risen Lord."

(A spokesman for Shourie said the minister is on an official trip to Germany, and could not be reached for an interview.)

Christian missionaries counter that their work among Dalits provides social and spiritual uplift to a community that was mistreated by upper-caste Hindus for centuries.

But what is certain nearly five years after the murder of Staines is that Christian missionaries are becoming more careful about how they do their work. Instead of talking of conversion, for instance, they speak of "spreading the word of God."

Ashish Lal, pastor of a small evangelical community in New Delhi, says, "The government is slowly tightening a noose across the country, especially against Christians."

But every Sunday, he goes out into the streets in Christian neighborhoods and preaches from the Bible.

"Christianity is conversion," says Mr. Lal, a self-described End-Time Believer, or one who believes that the Apocalypse is imminent. "It brings peace to a Christian to let people know of Christ."

New unrest

But back in the state of Orissa, police officials are once again worried that one man's conversion could be the beginning of communal violence.

This week in the Mayurbhanj district, police were deployed in a protective cordon around a new Baptist church being built by a man who converted to Christianity three years ago.

According to press reports, Baidhara Bindhani and his fellow convert Sudarshan Das began construction of a church on Mr. Bindhani's own land a few weeks ago.

The construction project set off a riot by Hindu neighbors, 500 of whom reportedly marched to the site, stole the building materials, and then forced Bindhani and Mr. Das to drink water mixed with cow dung for the "purification" of their souls.

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