Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Press Release - Catholic Bishops Conference of India

Government urged to uphold the Secular nature of India

New Delhi: January 21, 2015


The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India urged the Government to uphold the Secular nature of India. A Special Consultation was organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India at the CBCI Centre, New Delhi, on Monday, January 20, 2015.

The Constitution of India guarantees that all the citizens of our country can profess, practice and propagate a religion of one’s choice. India is a land where different religious faiths have long since flourished and our founding fathers made special efforts to ensure that the rights of all are safeguarded, irrespective of our religious beliefs, gender or caste. Christianity has its roots in Indian soil for more than 2000 years. The Christians of India believe in God and believe in the goodness of people and have been selflessly serving the people of this country in the fields of education, health care, etc. without any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion.


The unfortunate incidents that happened in the past few months in various parts of our country have hurt the sentiments of the Christian community and has shaken the faith in the secular fabric of our Nation. The shocking incidents that have taken place against Churches, clergy and laity in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have caused great concern for the Christian community. The recent controversies in the name of religious reconversions portray a negative image about India. Communal polarization and the bid to homogenize India are posing threat to all minorities – women, dalits, and all linguistic, cultural and religious minorities.


The Ghar Wapsi programmes, the saffranisation of education and culture, and the demands for a Hindu Rashtra are again posing challenges to the secular ethos of our beloved country. Conversions of a religious nature are an exercise of one’s free will and one’s constitutional/fundamental rights and freedom of conscience and of religion. Ghar Wapsi is a political process, carried out by the powerful exponents of religious nationalism – much against the principle of Secularism. It does not even have the legitimacy of freedom of political expression.

The Christians of this country need assurance from the Government that we are protected and secure and safe in our motherland. We express our strong concern on the aforementioned issues. Putting an end to such dangerous tendencies is inevitable for the growth and progress of our great nation. This great secular nation has to remain as a place where people of all religions and of different cultural backgrounds should live freely, practicing their faith without fear or threat and in harmony.  While we recommit ourselves for the progress and development of our nation, we strongly urge the Honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, to urgently intervene and take appropriate action to stop incidents that pose big threat to the unity of this secular nation.

The CBCI Special Consultation was presided over by the CBCI President, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Catholicos and attended by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, Cardinal George Alencherry, the CBCI Office-Bearers, representatives of Conference of Religious, India (CRI), Catholic Council of India (CCI), All India Catholic Union (AICU), Indian Catholic Youth Movement (ICYM), Legal experts, Human Rights and Social activists, CBCI Core Team and Secretaries.

Fr. Joseph Chinnayyan,

Deputy Secretary General &

Spokesperson, CBCI

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Christian groups allege forced conversions in Bathinda

BATHINDA: Christian organizations have taken a strong note of forcible attempts of conversions of their community members into Hindu fold. They have asked the Union and state government to look into such misadventure against the minorities and stop Hindu groups from forcing minorities to convert.

Nearly 50 pastors, representatives of United Christian Welfare Association (UCWA), Pastor Fellowship Association and Punjab Christian Movement assembled in Bathinda on Saturday and denounced the efforts of conversions in the name of 'ghar wapsi' by some Hindu outfits.

Christian representatives termed 'ghar wapsi' as a planned attack on the minorities. They alleged the Christian missionaries were being stopped from spreading their religion whereas preachers of other religions were indulging in such activities openly.

UCWA president George C Masih said, "We have never taken any such step which could be termed as anti-national. We are being seen as anti-national and allegations are levelled against us that we lure people to convert to Christianity, which is vague."

VHP'S Bathinda unit claims Sran expelled:

Division came to fore in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Bathinda. Some VHP leaders of Bathinda assembled on Saturday and asserted that Sukhpal Sran, who claims to be state secretary of the organization, had been expelled. VHP Bathinda chief Sham Lal said Sran was not the state secretary as he had been expelled for not taking them into confidence for 'ghar wapsi (homecoming) programme, which proved to be a failure.

On the other hand, Sran claimed he was still the VHP state secretary and the district unit has no right to remove him. When contacted, VHP national secretary Khem Chand said, "Sran has not been expelled. The district unit has no right to remove a state office-bearer of VHP. Bathinda unit should restrain from indulging in such debate."

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Saturday, January 03, 2015

Crib in an Outer Delhi Church found burnt

A crib kept inside the premises of a church in Outer Delhi caught fire on Saturday morning. After conducting preliminary inquiry, the local police are calling it a case of fire caused due to short-circuit and have ruled out foul play.

The incident took place around 8 a.m in Outer Delhi's Rohini on Saturday. The church officials gave a call to the police on finding out that the crib was burnt. The police team that reached the spot took up investigation.

"Prime facie, it appears that the crib caught fire due to a short-circuit as a decorative wire was around it. There is remote possibility of anyone setting the crib on fire because if that was the case, more things would have been set on fire. The church wall is just 4 feet tall and a person can easily jump in if he wants" said a senior police officer.

However we are investigating the case from all possible angles, the officer added.
Meanwhile, Church officials could not be reached for a comment. 

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VHP reconversions in Punjab a flop show

BATHINDA: Vishwa Hindu Parishad's much-hyped "ghar wapsi" function at Bathinda, aimed at bringing back Christians to the Hindu and Sikh fold, was a non-starter. With no member of the community turning up for the proposed conversions on Friday, the Hindu organisation put off the homecoming ceremony indefinitely.

The 'ghar wapsi' was on Thursday deferred by a day. The Hindu organization had been making efforts for the last many days for re-conversion of nearly 100 families.

"With only two families turning up for 'ghar wapsi', we have decided to defer it for an indefinite period. We are taking up the matter with our senior leadership, including central leader Khem Chand, for a new date," said VHP state secretary Sukhpal Sran. He alleged that the Akali leaders had asked the administration and police to foil conversion attempts due to strained SAD-BJP ties.

Sources said VHP activists made efforts to prevail upon some Christian families from Jangirana, Gobindpura, Raike and Naruana villages and Rampura Phul town, but none of them turned up. VHP also tried to rope in four pastors to convert Christians to Hinduism and Sikhism.

United Christian Welfare Front president George Masih alleged, "They are targeting not only Christians but Muslims also. A couple of Christian families had contacted me saying that they were being asked to convert but they had refused to do so." George said religious bodies must avoid the misadventure of forced conversions, and if someone wanted to embrace another faith, they had no objection to it.

Punjab cabinet minister Sikandar Singh Maluka denied that SAD-BJP ties had come in the way of conversions in Bathinda. He said, "There was no pressure against any family to convert or vice versa."

Bathinda senior superintendent of police Inder Mohan Singh said, "Police had no role in the conversion ceremony. We didn't put pressure on anyone to convert or not."

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Now, Sikh ‘ghar wapsi’ in Akali turf: RSS ‘reconverts’ 40 Christian families

Extending its ‘ghar wapsi’ campaign to Punjab where NDA partner Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) heads the ruling alliance, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) oversaw the “reconversion” Tuesday of 40 Mazhabi Sikh families who had embraced Christianity.

RSS cadres raised cries of “Jo Bole So Nihaal”, which was repeated by boys of the “reconverted” families, as they “returned” to the Sikh fold at a ceremony at Jivan Singh gurdwara in Guru-ki-Wadali, Amritsar.

Dinesh, Punjab head of the Samanvaya Samiti of the RSS, told the gathering: “We have resolved we will not allow even one gurdwara in Punjab to close because of Sikhs embracing Christianity.”

Claiming that 40 per cent of Mazhabi Sikhs — it is recognised as a Scheduled Caste — in Punjab’s border belt had converted to Christianity, Dinesh said volunteers had stepped up efforts to return to the Sikh fold many of the converts.

The ceremony was held days after Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal criticised forcible religious conversion.

Balwinder Singh, a Sikh preacher from Anandpur Sahib, conducted the ceremony in which “reconverts” were handed saffron scarves, a locket with a Sikh symbol and a gutka (a small book containing banis from Sikh scriptures).

Leafing through the gutka, 60-year-old Gurmel Kaur, who had embraced Christianity 20 years ago, asked reporters if she would get old-age pension now. Another “reconvert”, Rajinder Singh, a rickshaw-puller, said he had become a Christian four years ago “because of an illness in the family” and “they told me they would cure my wife”.

Sikh preachers at the ceremony told the “reconverts” that they “no longer need to go to Christian missionaries for treatment of ailments”.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Christians reject re-conversions in Bihar depite pressure

The much-hyped “ghar wapsi” event organised by the VHP proved to be a damp squib as none of the 42 converted Christian Manjhi families —who were provided adequate police security — turned up at the”purification” function on Monday.

Around 50 villagers, mostly OBC Yadavas who are already Hindus, attended the function that saw a havan amid chants of Vedic mantras and distribution of saffron scarfs and tulsi necklaces.

The VHP leaders, however, claimed some Christians attended the ghar wapsi event organised near Atiya village. Gaya BJP MP Hari Manjhi, who had visited the village on December 26 and was supposed to attend the function, stayed away because of “political reasons”.

VHP’s prant sanrakshak Uday Kumar Verma said the outfit would set up one-teacher school or ekal vidyalaya where the village students would also be taught about Hindu values.

The Gaya district administration, which had received complaints from some Manjhi families about the VHP leaders putting pressure on them to reconvert, had deployed adequate forces at Manjhi settlements and also succeeded in forcing the saffron outfit to organise the “ghar wapsi” at some distance from their houses to avoid clashes. The 42 converted families have altogether 198 members.

The police said it was only a complaint and there was no need to convert it into an FIR. A police picket has also been opened at the village.

Bodh Manjhi, Anil Manjhi and Vinod Manjhi, who represented the converted families before the local MP two days ago, stayed at their homes on Monday. Pastor Rajkishore’s family, who used to stay at village community hall, reportedly has left the area fearing backlash from Hindus.

One of the converts Vikram Manjhi said: “We are happy being Christians. We did not succumb to VHP pressure to reconvert. Once we have converted, there will be no looking back”.

Shivshanker Manjhi said the families were happy with “education and health services” being provided by missionaries. “For last three days, the VHP leaders had been after us for ghar wapsi. We told it to the police. We have nothing to do with the VHP function”, said Shivshanker, who spoke in broken English at times to make an impression. When asked about who provided handpumps, irate village women said it was “missionary, not the government”.

Those who took part in the “ghar wapsi” exposed the VHP’s claims on reconversion. Chandrika Yadav, a villager who attended the function, said: “I am very much a Hindu and attended havan because I did not find anything wrong with it. I am very much at home and where is question of ghar wapsi.” Though some Manjhis did attend the fumction, they were Hindus and from another area of the village.

As priests talked about importance of cow protection and Ganga cleanliness and chanted mantras invoking Hindu deities, a village youngster quipped: “Hindu ko hi Hindu bana rahe hai (they are converting Hindus to Hindus).”

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Christians targeted in Deoria, Police deny conversions as alleged by Hindu Yuva Vahini

Gorakhpur: Heavy police force was deployed at Salempur in Deoria district on Sunday after reports of conversion.

On Sunday afternoon, Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) workers and police reached the house of a Christian couple following reports that about 100 women from nearby villages were attending prayers organized by the duo. Most of the women, who were wearing the cross, escaped after seeing police and HYV workers.

Reports said Jaswant Masih, a teacher and resident of Rasda in Ballia, and his wife Suman had taken a house on rent at Pipra Nazir ward in Salempur. Every Sunday, the couple organizes prayer in the house which is attended by a large number of people.

Police detained Masih couple, house owner's son Sudhir Singh and two women. But they were released after interrogation. Police found books on Christianity from the house. The detained persons told police that they have been coming for prayers every Sunday for past 21 years.

Israwati, a local, said: "We have been attending the prayers for past five years. The couple tell us that that Prabhu Yeeshu will take away our poverty and diseases. It has had a positive impact as my health has improved."

Bible in Bhojpuri language was also recovered from the spot.

Jaswant Masih denied any incident of conversion. "We just pray in front of the picture of Jesus Christ. There is no truth in allegations made by the Hindu hardliners," he said.

A leader of HYV said: "Christian missionaries are trying to convert locals to Christianity. They target the weakest and poorest sections of the society. Jaswant is trying to influence people and promoting Christianity in the region since long."

VHP and HYV activists have demanded action against such people.

Police, too, denied any incident of conversion. "A Christian family has been organising prayers for past many years and people go there. It is just a matter of faith and nothing else," said inspector Ram Yadav.       

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Catholic priest, brother dragged to police station in central India

Fr Prasad Kuzhively

Indore: Hindu radical groups on Sunday forcibly took two Catholic missionaries to a police station in central India after disrupting an inter-faith meeting to celebrate Christmas and New Year.

The activists of Bajrang Dal (the party of the strong stout) and Dharma Jagran Manch (forum to awaken religion) accused Father Prasad and Brother Sleeva of trying to convert Hindus to Christianity. They demanded that the police arrest the missionaries, after registering a First Information Report against them.

The two were let off after three hours of high drama at the police station, Tapan Bhattacharya, a Hindu member of the Sadbhavna Foundation that organized the meeting, told Matters India on Monday. He said the Hindu radicals could not prove the charges against the missionaries.

The missionaries belong to the Society of Divine Word, an influential Catholic Religious congregation that works with various religious groups for social harmony and peace in Indore, the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh state. Father Prasad, 60, is the secretary of Indore diocese’s commission for inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism.

The Sabhavna Foundation, launched in 2005, comprises members of all religions in Indore, and Father Prasad, an inter-religious activist, has been its secretary from the inception.
Bhattacharya said they observe the festivals of all religions, but choose a venue belonging to another religion to celebrate them.

The Christmas meeting was held at Gita Bhavan (house of Gita), a convention center under a Hindu trust. People of all religions use the place for various functions, he explained.

Fr T Xavier, Divine Word congregation’s Madhya Pradesh provincial, was among several dignitaries of the city attending the Christmas program when scores of Hindu radicals came to the venue shouting.

“They alleged we were converting Hindus and demanded to know if we had the permission to conduct the meeting,” Bhattacharya narrated. “We showed them the permission signed by Gita Bhavan’s trustee chairman, but they dismissed it, saying the venue is not the chairman’s personal property that he can grant permission to anyone.”

The participants, mostly Hindus, tried to explain that no conversion was taking place. “But they refused to listen to us, saying we are not real Hindus since we promote secularism,” said Bhattacharya, a Brahmin, the highest caste in Hinduism.

He said the Hindu radicals wanted action against on the Catholic missionaries. “But all of us, Hindus and others insisted they should make us also the accused.”

Inter-faith meeting under attack

Inter-faith meeting under attack

Father Prasad told Matters India that the protesters forced him to ride pillion of the motorcycle of the lone policeman present at the meeting venue. “They hit me on head from behind and abused me,” he said. He said it was around 10:30 pm when they came out of the police station.

The priest said the incident was unexpected and unnerving. He said he had told Brother Sleeva that their experience was “only a small opportunity” to witness their Christian faith.

Anand Mohan Mathur, a former Advocate General of Madhya Pradesh and president of the Sadbhavna Foundation, said they organized the program after obtaining all permissions. 

“Whether Diwali or Christmas we celebrate it together. Nobody’s religious sentiments were hurt by our program,” he told naidunia.com.

Vinod Sharma, a committee member of the Dharma Jagran Manch, said they protested because there was no mention of Hinduism in the invitation to the program. “They were celebrating Christmas Day in the name of Sadbhavna. The organizers claim they respect all religions, but they did not bother to mention Hinduism in their notice,” he told naidunia.com.

Mukesh Yadav, local area coordinator of Bajrangal Dal, wants they should be permitted to conduct their religious programs at mosques and churches, if other religions are given permission to conduct their programs at a Hindu venue. 

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Dalit Christian converts in Bihar seek police protection, accuse Sangh of intimidation

GAYA: The 42 "mahadalit" (in the traditional Indian caste system a member of the lowest caste) families that recently converted to Christianity have sought police protection and alleged that several outfits of the Hindu right-wing have been threatening them to reconvert to Hinduism.

In a petition, with two pages of signatures, the new converts have accused the VHP, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal of indulging in intimidation to get them back to the Hindu fold. The petitioners said that they had embraced Christianity on their own free will.

According to the petition addressed to the Bodh Gaya SHO, a group of 30-40 intruders raided the Christan hamlet around midnight on Saturday. But when the vigilantes challenged them, the intruders made a hasty retreat.

Shiv Shankar Masih, the first dalit from the village who embraced Christianity way back in 2007 and now leads the new converts of the village told the TOI on Monday morning that activists of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS have been visiting the village to issue threats to the converts.

The converts have been warned that they will be deprived of all the benefits of government schemes and driven out of the village if they did not come back to the Hindu fold.

Shiv Shankar Masih alleged that on Sunday evening, Gaya MP Hari Manjhi offered Masih a government job if he returned to the Hindu fold. However, nobody has been specifically named in the petition submitted to the local SHO.

When contacted, MP Hari Manjhi denied Masih's allegation. Conceding that he went to the village after the eruption of the conversion controversy, the MP said that he was against the use of coercion and enticement both in conversion and reconversion.

"If the misguided villagers came back to the Hindu fold on their own, fine. Else, good luck to them," said Manjhi. Asked about his more than conspicuous absence from the VHP sponsored "ghar wapsi" homecoming reconversion programme, the MP said that he had more pressing engagements elsewhere.

Asked about the petition submitted by the recently converted dalits, Gaya SSP Nishant Tiwari said that he had neither seen nor been informed about it. The SSP also denied that any group had raided Atia village on Saturday night.

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Tripura CM speaks out against RSS's forceful conversions

Agartala, Dec 29: Tripura's Left Front government would not tolerate any forceful religious conversions and would take strict action against any such move, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar said Monday.

"The government would not tolerate any kind of forceful religious conversions in the state. We would take strict legal and administrative actions against forceful conversions," Sarkar said at a public meeting in Dhali district.
 
He said: "Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jains are living together for decades in Tripura and there is absolutely no problems. The situation would continue in future too without any difficulties."

Sarkar, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, said if anyone was trying to upset the communal harmony in the state, the government would deal this with all out efforts. "Religion is an individual affair and right. But the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) chief Mohan Bhagwat said that if anyone wants to live in India, he should live as a Hindu," Sarkar said, adding this was "dangerous".
 
The chief minister said: "I have read Quran, Gita, Bible and Tripitok, nowhere told anything against each other, neither said about forceful conversions. The RSS and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) are trying forceful conversion."

"In the villages of Uttar Pradesh, people are being converted without their knowledge." Sarkar said when the opposition parties in parliament asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to give statement about the "forceful" religious conversions in different parts of the country, Modi kept mum and indirectly supported the move.
 
The CPI-M leader asked the people to agitate against both the religious and economic attacks of the BJP-led central government. Ahead of four-day CPI-M's 21st state conference scheduled Feb 25-28t here, Sarkar has been attending divisional committee conferences and addressing the public gathering, especially in tribal dominated areas.

The politically important election to Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) is also scheduled mid next year. Various tribal parties ahead of the TTAADC polls have been raising various sensitive demands, including creation of a separate state curving out of the autonomous district council areas.
 
According to BJP's Tripura unit president Sudhindra Dasgupta, around 13 percent of the tribals, traditionally Hindu believers, have been converted into Christian over past decade. Tribals constitute a third of Tripura's 3.7 million people.(IANS) 
 
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When I went looking for homecoming Christians in Gujarat

“The world knows this is my maal,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, last Saturday in Kolkata. By maal, which means "goods" in Hindi, Bhagwat was referring to Muslims and Christians in India. “If I take back my maal, what’s the big deal?”

The first time the Sangh had acted on its idea of wresting back “stolen goods” was in the early 1990s in a corner of Chhattisgarh. By washing the feet of Christian tribals in ceremonies called ghar wapsi or homecoming, Hindutva activists claimed to have purged them of Christianity and brought them back into the Hindu fold.

An obscure idea, confined to tribal areas, ghar wapasi was pitchforked into the centre of the national debate last month when Hindutva groups held a ceremony in Agra in which they claimed to have converted 60 Muslim families to Hinduism. The Muslims scrap-pickers who lived in a slum told reporters that they had been promised ration cards and basic amenities in return for participating in the havan.

The Opposition stalled Parliament, seeking to corner the Bharatiya Janata Party government on the issue. But the BJP cleverly turned the tables, using the Agra event to make a case for a national anti-conversion law. “The BJP has always been opposed to forcible conversion,” BJP President Amit Shah reportedly said. “The so-called secular parties must support the bill against forced conversion if they are sincere in their clamour against it.''

Bhagwat added his voice to the demand for an anti-conversion law but was careful to exclude ghar wapasi from its ambit – for a reason. While he was speaking in Kolkata, Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists in Valsad district in south Gujarat were announcing triumphantly that they had brought back 400-500 tribals from Christianity to Hinduism.

Hindutva organisations might wish to draw a distinction between those leaving Hinduism and those joining it, but the state anti-conversion laws view all religious conversion ceremonies as the same. In Gujarat, a law passed in 2003 and brought into force in 2008 makes it mandatory for those holding such ceremonies and those participating in them to seek  permission from the head of the district administration.

Had the organisers of the ghar wapasi in Valsad sought permission for the conversion event? “No permission was taken,” said Vikrant Pandey, the district collector of Valsad. In that case, had action been initiated against the Hindutva activists for violating the law? “We are carrying out an investigation to find out whether or not it was a religion conversion ceremony,” he said.

Video footage taken by local journalists in Arnai village shows a Hindu priest chanting mantras under the banner saying "Hindu Sanskriti Dikshaa Karyakaram"  (programme to bestow Hindi culture). Three young couples are sitting around a yagya fire, a group of about a hundred others watching them. Some men are drawing water from a pond to bathe. But an official claimed neither the footage nor the testimonies of Hindutva activists constituted evidence that religious conversions had taken place. “We need to trace the people who participated in the ceremony and verify if they were Christians to start with,” the official said.

But the administration could have easily done that at the event itself. Video footage shows that local policemen were present at the event and were fully aware of the nature of the proceedings.


In search of “homecoming” Christians

Four days after the VHP event, the temple at Arnai village looks desolate. Steps from a mid-sized, modern-looking Hanuman temple led down to a smaller, older Shiva shrine. Further down was a pond fed by a hot water spring. A lone man was drawing water for a bath. On the side of the pond, under a tree, was a cluster of stones adorned with vermillion. “These are our Adivasi gods,” said Bhagirath Bhai Gavit, a middle-aged man who appeared on hearing about my arrival and who introduced himself as the president of the temple trust. He said that the Hanuman temple was built a few decades ago – it is common in tribal areas for Adivasi shrines to be overlaid with signs of contemporary Hinduism.

According to Bhagirath, the VHP chose the temple for the ghar wapasi programme because of the purifying qualities of the hot water spring. “It is very holy," he said. "When Ram ji was on vanvas, Sita Ma wanted to have a bath. So he fired an arrow and hot water sprung up.”

When I asked him to introduce me to those who had changed their religion, he said they did not belong to Arnai village. “They had come from other villages,” he said. “Shankar Bhai would know better.”

The temple and pond in Arnai village.

Shankar Bhai Mahakal was the area’s most well known VHP karyakarta. A Kukna tribal, he lived in Khutli village. He said he joined the organisation in 1994. “I was about 20 years old,” he recalled. “A VHP yatra passed through my village.” Fresh from working as a grassroot mobiliser for the international non-profit Oxfam, he was drawn to the VHP’s idea of working for the cause of Hinduism.

“The main problem is people here do not know about Hindu religion,” he said.  “They are poor and illiterate.” By promising to cure them of their illnesses, he claimed, Christian preachers won them over in large numbers. “But those who do not feel better, unka maan toota jaata hai (they lose faith). Since we have friends in all the villages, we are able to identify those who had tried out Christianity but left it. We keep lists of names ready and whenever a ghar wapasi programme is organised, we get such people to come for it.”

Those attending Saturday's event were not people changing their religion overnight, but those who had stopped practising Christianity long ago, he said. “The ceremony was just a formality. People were given a Hanuman locket to wear around their necks.”

Could he give me a list of those who had attended the ceremony?

"I cannot give you the list without permission from Delhi,” he said.  "We have been told not to give out lists because the intelligence officials might come around snooping..." The VHP did not want to take any chances with the law.

Could he at least tell me the names of the villages from where people had come for the event?

“Sure, write down the names…Vereebhavada, Mehda, Chandvengan, Dhamni, Dhakawad, Pendha…”

The church in the village of Chanvengan. 

By the end of the day, I had visited half a dozen villages but in each of them I had drawn a blank. The villagers did not have any leads to offer. Not a single convert was to be found.

At Chandvengan village, as I stopped outside a church to take a picture, a group of men came towards me, agitated, asking me what I was upto. “Is there a problem here? Are you facing any trouble?” I asked them. “Yes, the newspapers have reported that people in our village have left Christainity and become Hindus. But that’s simply not true…”

In Dhamni, I sat down at a tea stall. Naresh, a young man, was serving tea and bhajjiyas.

“Are they any Christians in the village?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.

“What is the religion of people here?”

“Lots of religions. Moksh Marg, Swaminarayan, Sanatan Dharma…”

“What is your religion?”

“None.”

“Do you know anyone who had gone to Arnai on Saturday?”

He smiled. He had gone himself, he said, to partake in the feast.

"They were serving baigan ka sabzi, dal and rice."

That’s when I noticed the bright metal trinket around his neck. It was a Hanuman locket.

Hanuman lockets were distributed at the ghar wapasi in Arnai village.

It is possible that of the large crowds gathered at Arnai last Saturday, many had turned up simply for the food, and others were mere spectators. But the interviews done by reporters present at the event suggest that at least some were conscious of changing their religion. The act of changing religion, however, is hardly a dramatic one in a place where the sands of faith are constantly shifting.

Naresh, the young man in Dhamni, identified different Hindu sects as different religions. At the Arnai temple, Bhagirath and his fellow trustees spoke about the bewildering array of evangelists from different religious organisations that travel through the area. “Depending on what appeals to you, you take your pick,” Bhagirath said. “I joined Hari Om in 2004. He joined Swaminarayan four years ago. As for him, he is with the Moksh Marg.”

"We, adivasis, were one people,” said Ganesh Bhai, the Swaminarayan follower, “but we have now been divided into different samprudaya (sects)."

In this eclectic landscape, Christians could have fitted in as just another group, but for the break with adivasi tradition that accompanied the adoption of Christian belief. Every year, when the village gathered at the adivasi shrine to celebrate the festival of Vagh Baras, the only people missing were the Christians. “Forget coming for the festival,” said Bhagirath, “they do not even contribute the 50 rupees donation.”

“How can we do murti puja?” said Prakash, a young man, who I met outside the village church. Preparations were on for natal, as Christmas is known here. The church’s interiors had been given a fresh coat of paint. Women were plastering the courtyard with cow dung paste. Prakash’s father, Silya Bhai, spoke about the time when he adopted Christianity. “It was 1993,” he said. “I had lost both my sons. I was very disturbed. A friend in another village told me about the Church. I started praying and found peace. The same year, Prakash was born.” Others in the group spoke about adopting Christianity to feel better, get rid of pain, to get healed of ailments. How many people attended the church, I asked. “The number keeps changing,” said Silya Bhai. “People leave if they do not feel better. Others join. It all depends…”

The VHP organised an event in Piprol village on Christmas. 

In a region where people pick and abandon religious beliefs at will, Hindutva organisations believe they need to compete for attention – even on Christmas day. In the village of Piprol, on Christmas morning, the church was nearly empty, as village folk trekked up a hill where the VHP had organised a conference of village Bhagats or adivasi faith healers, while serving lunch on the side. Not far from there, in the village of Barumal, a 11 day long Bhagwat Katha was underway at a large temple complex set up by the Swami Akhanadand Trust. “It is no concidence,” said a local journalist who had accompanied me, “that such activities take place around Christmas time.”

“If you had come in the morning, you would have heard adivasi girls chant Sanskrit sholakas,” said the head of the temple trust, Shiv Dutt Sharma, better known as Shivji Maharaj, who lost no time in underlining his political clout – “Modi sahab used to come here every year.” Set up in the late nineties, the organisation’s motto, he said, was “Sanskriti, Shikshaa, Swasthaa” (culture, education, health). “1000 adivasi girls live and study here. We have an ambulance that goes to the villages everyday. We will soon start sending trucks loaded with chana dal and other food items to sell to the villagers at discounted rates.”

A religious discourse underway at the temple complex in Barumal.

Not only did the trust work with the aim of preventing more conversions to Christinaity, said Shivji Maharaj, it even organised ghar wapasi ceremonies to “bring back people who had been misled.” The last ceremony had been held in November and about 350 people had participated, he said. “We do this work quietly. We don’t invite the media.”

“The RSS does not trust the media,” said the journalist. “It feels media coverage has adverse effects.”

So why was the Saturday event opened up to the media? Because some people believe the time is ripe for more publicity, he said. “The karyakartas get energised…They feel, arre yaar, the workers in Valsad are doing this without fear, let us also do something. Those who are stuck at 90%, they gain 10% energy.”

But weren't the organisers of the event worried about the law?

“The law cannot do anything,” he said. “No one here changes religion in their records and certificates. If I start attending church, the police cannot book me for changing my religion. When there is no documentary evidence to prove that people became Christians, then how can anyone prove that they converted from Christianity to Hinduism?”

“This is a dharmyudh (religious war),” said Shivji Maharaj. “It cannot be fought with the law.”

If the state anti-conversion law was so ineffective, why did the RSS want to have one at the national level, I asked.

“To create fear,” the journalist said. “The police in Gujarat was not able to implement the law (against Christian missionaries) because the government at the centre could used the intelligence bureau to trouble the state police. But that’s changed now.”

“In fact, there would have been more ghar wapasi programs,” he continued, “had it not been for the fact that the RSS does not want to embarrass Modi. After all, Obama is coming in January.”

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Christian couple booked under MP’s anti-conversion law

A Christian couple was taken into custody under the state’s anti-conversion law from Bitnera village, about 30 kms from district headquarters Khargone, after a Hindu woman alleged that she had been offered Rs 5,000 every month if she converted to Christianity.

The police said Wilson and Rashmita, who belong to Chennai but have been living in Khargone for last few years, had come to the village to take part in a feast organized by Rekhabai and her husband Badri after he was cured of a chronic illness.

The local family had reportedly planned a sacrifice of a goat on the occasion. A few more local members had reportedly started practicing Christianity after being treated of their illnesses.

There was more than one version of the complaint by Kamlabai, a woman who alleged that she was promised money for changing her faith. One version said she was opposed to the animal sacrifice.

The Christian couple was allowed to go home late on Wednesday but had been given a notice. Khargone SP Amit Singh told The Indian Express that the couple has been booked under the anti-conversion act but not arrested immediately because the offence was punishable with less than seven-year jail term. He said the couple’s claim that it was there for Christmas celebration was questionable because the village does not have a Church or any other Christian institute.

The couple, however, claimed that they had come to the village only to attend the feast and made no attempt to convert anyone.

The in-charge of Goganva Police Station, where the offence was registered, said the police have not been able to confirm the address in Khargone where the couple claimed to have rented a place.

“No one would come all the way from Chennai only to eat goat meat,’’ he said and added that there was no proof of the couple’s involvement in previous conversions in Goganva Police Station area.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Community Under Attack? - Article by Outlook Magazine


A Sangh supporter flies a saffron flag atop a vandalised church in Muniguda, Orissa
christians & conversion



The Christian community is in mortal fear as the Sangh parivar steps up attacks over ‘conversions’



A Community  Under Attack?
Incidents involving Christians since April ’14

  • Churches Vandalised
    Incidents of arson, stone-pelting, vandalism reported from Delhi; Bhilai, Durg (Jharkhand); Udupi, Chitradurga (Karnataka); Thrissur (Kerala); Jagdalpur, Mahasamund, (Chhattisgarh); Jaunpur, Bulandshahar, Aligarh (UP); Karur (TN); Mandla (MP).
  • Pastors Attacked
    Reports of arrest/harassment by police from Dewas, Katni, Indore, Bhopal, Alipur (MP); Chitradurga, Karwar, (Karnataka); Tirunelveli (TN); Jashpur (Chhattisgarh); Mednipur (West Bengal); Patna (Bihar); Faizabad (UP)
  • Diktat On Missionary Schools
    Union HRD minister announces essay competition on December 25 (dubbed “good governance day”), backtracks after protests. Schools in Jagdalpur (Chhattisgarh) asked to instal Saraswati statues, diktat to call principals ‘pracharya’ not ‘Rev Father’.
  • Sunday Service, Carols Disrupted; Christians Banned
    Reports from Jaunpur and Agra (UP); Malappuram (Kerala); Bastar (Chhattisgarh). Entry of Christians ‘banned’ in 50 villages in Bastar (Chhattisgarh).
  • Dalit Christians
    In a reply in the RS, government ruled out reservations to Christian and Muslim Dalits
  • ‘Forcible Conversion’ Cases
    500 cases in MP alone in three months; incidents from Davangere (Karnataka); Satna (MP); Greater Noida (UP); reconversion of Christians reported in Bastar (Chhattisgarh).
  • Refusal To Supply PDS
    Complaint of inadequate supplies to 52 Christian families for two months in Sirisguda, Chhattisgarh, June 2014

***
On the last day of November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a visit to Nagaland when he received a memorandum from church leaders seeking his intervention to put an end to the renewed attacks on Christians reported from across the country. In what seemed to be an act of defiance, the very next day the altar at the St Sebastian’s Church in the national capital was burnt to cinders. And no, it wasn’t a short circuit that did it. The incident triggered outrage and several thousand Christians gheraoed the Delhi police headquarters the next day to protest.
The brutal 1998 burning of Australian missionary Graham Staines under A.B. Vajpayee’s watch has faded into the rec­esses of the country’s short public memory. But in the year of the lord 2014, the installation of the Modi sarkar appears to have instantly galvanised sec­tions of the Sangh parivar into a sort of frenzy. Emboldened by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s pronouncement that all Muslims and Christians were basically Hindus, Union ministers and BJP MPs have been vying to outdo each other with outrageous statements dir­ected at the community.
The unkindest cut came from the PM’s close aide, HRD minister Smriti Irani, in the 50th week of the year: a completely unnecessary controversy over keeping schools and offices open on Christmas day and observing December 25 as ‘Good Governance Day’, the stars of the day apparently being Hindu Mahasabha leader Madan Mohan Malviya and Vajpayee, not Jesus Christ. Christians should feel happy, suggested a BJP spokesman on television, that the day has been chosen to highlight good governance.
As the Christian world celebrates a season of cheer, here in India activists estimate there have been as many as 71 incidents of attacks, arrests, arson, dam­age, disruptions, burglaries, landgrabs involving the peaceable community in just the first 200 days of Modi’s regime (see graphic). The icing on the cake came from RSS affiliates who tom-tommed plans to reconvert Christians on Chri­stmas at Aligarh and Meerut and hold up Parliament. Meanwhile, even as we go to press a pastor and 15 of his congregation from Banjara Bap­t­ist church in Hyderbad were beaten up by Sangh workers as they were singing Christmas carols.
“What next?” asks P.C. George, Con­g­ress chief whip in Kerala and a pre-ele­ction supporter of Modi. “Yes, I was an admirer of Modi’s development plans but what we now see is that it has been cast aside for this kind of divisive politics. What are they going to do next? We hear in the Northeast poor Muslim migrants coming across the border from Bangladesh have been asked to convert to Hinduism if they want to stay in India. This is plain cruel, a violation of human rights.” George still hasn’t given up on Modi, saying he’s probably being made the sacrificial lamb and it’s the RSS and Sangh parivar who are out to destroy the secular fabric of the country.

 
Forces deployed at Kalvari church in Ludhiana after Shiv Sena attack, Dec 11, 2014. (Photograph by Prabhjot Singh Gill)
 
Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar church in Kerala, says, “Christians are fearful and anxious all over India as the BJP government attempts to suppress the rights of minorities. There has been compulsion to instal images of Goddess Saraswati in some Christian schools, to suppress Santa Claus for Christmas and to force Christians into Hinduism in many places in the country. At the World Hindu Congress 2014, they declared the biggest threats to Hindutva as Macaulayism, Missionaries, Mater­ial­ism, Marxism and Muslims (described as the Malicious 5),” he recalls.



“Anti-national forces are engaged in religious conversion. But we won’t allow it. The country needs a uniform anti-conversion law.”Brijmohan Agarwal, Chhattisgarh minister, BJP


Admittedly, some of these incidents have occurred in non-BJP-ruled states too and it would be a mistake to extrapolate them into a national phenomenon. Still, there is no denying that a growing mass of lumpen elements are enjoying the warm sunshine the Modi governm­ent provides by virtue of being a “maj­o­rity government”. Christian eva­n­g­elists, pastors and priests have increasingly come under attack. Even the national capital isn’t safe as Joby Thomas (name changed) found out in September. A prayer meeting was being held when some miscreants arrived and demanded that they cease and disperse. Most of the people dispersed but when the police came, they arrested some of the Christians and took them to the station. Joby and a few others followed to help those taken into custody. At the station compound, a crowd had assembled by then with even a TV crew in attendance. While they were walking to the station, someone called him from behind and asked if he belonged to the arrested group. When he said yes, he got a tight slap on his left ear. “I was literally seeing stars,” says Joby. With the situation volatile, he and his friends ran into the police station. Joby though was thoroughly beaten up. The police put the 12-13 of them also in the lock-up even as the mob outside bayed for their blood. The policemen even advised them to stand close to the wall so that they could not be seen from outside. Later, after the mob had dispersed, a police officer jokingly mentioned that “you were arrested pre­c­isely for singing and praying”.
Kirti Ratnam, a well-to-do Christian homemaker in Delhi who’s married to a Hindu, says that while she herself has not faced any discrimination, on almost every visit to the church she and others in the congregation hear requests to pray for someone or the other who has been attacked or abused. “I feel upset and angry at not being able to voice my outrage even in social media lest I jeopardise the safety of my family,” she exclaims.


    

Christians protest the church arson attack in Delhi with a candle-light vigil, Dec 7, 2014
That said, she’s lucky, she and other affluent Christians do not have to bear the brunt of the attacks taking place in large parts of the countryside. That has followed a familiar pattern, as descri­bed by Father Anand, national president of the Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh. “We are being harassed, and our activities are being curbed. Nowadays, the police feel free to raid any Christian congregation, claiming conversions are being done there,” he says. Fr Anand says, and not without a tinge of sarcasm, that while BJP leaders are keen to get their wards admitted to missionary schools in cities, they were allergic to missionaries working in rural and tribal areas.
What’s surprising is also the muted response from political parties in the opposition. Says Rev Abraham Mar Poulos, chairperson of the socio-political commission of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, “No one’s talking. We had great expectations from the BJP government but some of the comments of the Sangh parivar and certain individuals in the BJP have brought us much grief. The recent incidents will be the real test of the PM.”
As in Vajpayee’s 1998, at the heart of the blowback against Christians is conversion, the belief that Christian missionaries are converting large masses of Indians, especially in the tribal areas, to Christianity. And this despite the fact—borne out by the 2011 census—that after 2000 years of Christianity in India, the population of Christians constitutes only 2.3 per cent of India’s 1.25 billion.
Right-wing Hindus, especially of the net-savvy kind, do not see the irony in Hindu evangelists converting people in western countries to Hinduism. Says Rev Pratheesh Joseph of the Salem Church in Kochi, “The number of foreigners flocking to the neo-Hinduism centres of Mata Amritanandamayi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and converting to Hinduism goes unnoticed. There are hundreds of centres of these religious leaders in the West. But no Christian is worried about this kind of conversion.” 
Contrary to the belief in the media and among people, anti-conversion laws enacted by several state legislatures are not yet ‘laws of the land’, having yet to receive assent from the respective governors (including in states ruled by the BJP for long). The legislations have also been challenged in court and the final word is still awaited. But the fact is, the police in these states have been taking action under these ‘laws’, instituting cases against Christian pastors, even putting many of them behind bars. Some instances:

  • In Chhattisgarh, official records reveal that over 700 complaints have been registered under the Act in police stations in the last eight years. Preliminary inquiries led to 270 cases filed by the police. Over a hundred accused pastors were arrested but later enlarged on bail. Significantly, around 40 of them have since been acquitted by the courts, says Arun Pannalal of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum.
  • In 2003, the Gujarat government pushed for the ‘Freedom of Religion Act’ which  mandated that if someone wanted to change his religion, he must necessarily seek the permission of the district collector. For the next five years, the state did not frame rules for the implementation of the law. They finally did so in 2008 and the constitutional validity of this law was challenged in the Gujarat High Court. The HC sent a notice to the state government but till today the latter has not responded to it, claims Father Cedric Prakash.
  • The MP assembly amended the ‘Freedom of Religion Act’ in July last year without any debate. The amendment, which provides for stringent punishment, was pushed through despite the government’s past experience in 2006 when the amendment was sent to the President. A presidential reference was then sought from the solicitor-general and the governor refused to give his assent on the basis of opinion received.
The series of attacks against religious minorities has not gone unnoticed by western diplomats and observers either. However, the euphoria that Modi has created on reviving the Indian economy and opening up India as an attractive investment destination and market con­tinues to be the overriding factor for the West. Many western diplomats admit that for now India under Modi is being viewed solely through the prism of economics. “For the time being, everybody is just focusing and hoping for quick economic reforms in India,” says a western diplomat.


MP Dinesh Kashyap at a VHP Christian ‘ghar vapasi’ event in Bastar, Oct 2014. (Photograph by Suresh Rawal)
That said, many western countries have appointed ambassadors-at-large whose task is to collect information from different parts of the world on sensitive issues. Issues like religious persecution is top on their agenda. It may, therefore, not come as a surprise if in the coming days countries start raising this sensitive issue with the Indian government during discussions.
BJP sources say the prime minister has conveyed his displeasure over the activities of Sangh-affiliated organisations to Nagpur. Modi has also personally ticked off party MPs, asking them to exercise restraint. A message, sou­rces say, has also been sent out from the RSS leadership to its cadre to take it slow. But does that mean that the winter chill will see right-wingers burying their agendas? Highly placed sources say this is unlikely. Indeed, the reverse is possible with the saffron world stepping up propaganda through Goa-like conclaves and seminars.


By Minu Ittyipe in Kochi, K.S. Shaini in Bhopal, Yashwant Dhote in Raipur and Mihir Srivastava in Delhi with Dola Mitra in Calcutta, Pranay Sharma in Delhi and Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai)

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Large-scale re-conversion likely on Christmas

Even as the controversy over ‘ghar vapsi’ is raging, around 200 persons, mostly Christians, have been brought back to the Hindu fold during the past few days by the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Kerala.
Indications are that a large number of people would be brought back to the Hindu fold on Christmas Day, though VHP sources said that no major events had been specially planned for the day.
Sources close to the developments indicated that preparations were under way for re-converting close to 300 persons on the day at different centres, including Ernakulam and Idukki districts.
Leaders of the Kerala unit of the organisation said the re-conversion drive would go full-throttle in the coming days and there were no directions from the national leadership to put the campaign on hold.
While 80 per cent of the re-conversions were from Christianity, a few incidents of Muslims returning to the Hindu faith had also taken place. People who were converted from Ezhava, and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities to Christianity had been mostly returning recently. Muslims too had returned at functions held at some parts of Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode, sources said.
Dharm Prasar, the VHP organ focusing on re-conversion, is planning to bring back 250 families by the year-end. Around 80 families have already returned to Hinduism at regional events held at Thodupuzha, Mavelikara, Kollam, Kasaragod, Thrissur, and Ernakulam. The events were being planned as low-key affairs considering the likely resistance that may come up against re-conversions, sources said.
VHP Kshetriya Sanghatana secretary K.N. Venkiteswaran, when asked about the plans for mass conversion programmes on Christmas, said if people came forward to return to Hinduism on that day, the homecoming would be arranged.
The VHP leader, who claimed that the drive had received overwhelming response, said the organisation would facilitate people returning to their original faith.
The helpline run by the VHP had been receiving close to 200 calls a day seeking support to return to Hinduism, he said.
The re-conversion drive, an ongoing process, would continue in the coming days and those willing to return to “Swadharma” would be given all protection and guarded against any social discrimination, VHP leaders said. Annually, around 2,000 people had been coming back over the years. Fear factor was holding back Muslims from coming back to Hinduism, he said.

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