Thursday, January 04, 2007

'Christian bashing' disturbs Christmas in central Indian state

By Francis Maria Britto


RAIPUR, India (UCAN) – Christmas 2006 brought a bundle of trouble for Christians in a central Indian state.

Newspapers in Chhattisgarh carried negative reports about missioners along with Christmas greetings and features. Some Catholics in Raipur Archdiocese stayed away from Christmas programs, fearing violence or harassment by right-wing Hindu groups.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party) has ruled the state for the past three years. Raipur city, the Chhattisgarh capital, is 1,745 kilometers (about 1,080 miles) southeast of New Delhi.

Monica Bagh, a village catechist, said members of her Baloda parish refused to hold traditional Christmas programs this year for fear of their village chief. The local official "was coming around to watch whether we were celebrating Christmas," the dalit Catholic told UCA News on Dec. 27. "So we did not even make the crib in our (village) chapel."

Most parishioners are Gada, one of the groups referred to as dalit, low-caste groups formerly considered "untouchable." They have a tradition of receiving an Infant Jesus statue in their home after Christmas. The family would sing carols and venerate the statue with incense, flowers and coconut.

In Singharpur, no dalit Catholic went to their parish church for Christmas celebrations, fearing Hindu neighbors, villager Rashid Bagh told UCA News.

Earlier, a rumor spread in the region that a witch would come begging for an onion and chapati (flat bread) at houses not marked with the phrase Om Namah Shivai, expressing homage to the Hindu god Shiva. A member of each family she visited would die, it was said. Most families, including Christians, scribbled the phrase with cow dung on their mud walls.

Christian students seemingly were targeted as well. Previously the state's educational institutions had observed a winter holiday the week after Christmas. The BJP government not only canceled the holiday but also conducted semiannual examinations before and after Christmas. "The exams have spoiled the Christmas mood," 10th-grader Padmini Sona told UCA News.

One BJP parliamentarian even led a "reconversion" ceremony on Christmas Eve. It made front-page news in a local daily.

Nav Bharat (new India) reported that about 110 Christians became Hindus at the ghar vapasi (homecoming) conducted by Dilip Singh Judeo in Basna, base of a Raipur Archdiocese parish. The paper also reproduced various allegations Judeo leveled against Christian missioners.

The Hindu activist accused Christian missioners of "secretly" converting Hindus through "fraud and allurement."

The paper said that initially 543 people had registered for the ceremony. Judeo later said his people would investigate the reasons why many had not turned up despite "voluntarily" registering their names.

Father Felix Fernandez, the Basna parish priest, dismissed the reconversion program as "a flop." No Catholic from his parish attended the program, he told UCA News.

However, Purendar Sagar, a catechist of nearby Baloda parish, told UCA News on Dec. 31 that some "nominal" Catholics from his Baelmundi village went in two jeeps to the Hindu program, "expecting to get something."

Chitranjan Tandi, a dalit Christian teacher in Navapara village, alleged that the Hindu organizers "pestered" him to attend the reconversion ceremony. Although he did not go to that ceremony, he also did not attend Christmas Mass, fearing harassment.

On Christmas Day, Hitavada, a local English-language daily, reported that police arrested Church of God Pastor Rajendra Prasad and 10 other Christians in Dhamtari town for "alluring and forcing" people to embrace Christianity. A state law bans conversion through fraud, allurement or by force.

Soon after the arrest, a mob gathered at the police station and shouted slogans against missioners. Police official Vijay Agrawal told media the police confiscated Christian literature from those arrested and registered a complaint against them.

Pastor James Ram told media the arrested Christians were going around singing carols and distributing literature to interested people, when some Hindu activists complained to the police and gathered a mob. Distributing Christian literature is not an offense, Pastor Ram insisted.

In another incident, police on Dec. 21 arrested a Christian schoolteacher and registered a case against her for distributing copies of the New Testament to 10th-grade students. They reportedly acted on a complaint from the principal. Members of Dharam Sena (religion army) demonstrated at the school and condemned the "conversion" of students.
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