For Compassion International: We have had enough of ‘service’ – Balbir Punj

Balbir PunjDear US Lawmakers,

Recently, 107 of you (members of the US Congress, both Republicans and Democrats) wrote to the Indian Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, to allow the American charity, Compassion International (CI) to continue its work in India.

Your missive opens on a warm note: ”As the largest and oldest democracies in the world, India and the US share bonds rooted in political pluralism and respect for the rule of law.” The subsequent sentences, reveal your real intent. “It is with this in mind that we write to express our deep concern over the lack of transparency and consistency in your government’s enforcement of the Foreign Contribution (Regulations) Act.”

“The ongoing case of US-based Compassion International, which will have harmful consequences for many Indian children, has caused serious concern within the US Congress.”

Dear US lawmakers, on the face, your letter is touching, full of concern for the unfortunate destitute children of a faraway developing country. But are you sure that CI’s activities are motivated purely by compassion for the underprivileged children of India? Is there no hidden agenda? What has been the record of CI since it started its operations in India in 1968?

If compassion for the destitute kids was the core of the organisation’s operations in India, it has a lot of work cut out for it in the US itself. In 2011, child poverty in the US reached record-high levels with 16.7 million children living in insecure households, about 35 per cent over the 2007 levels, the second highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. According to a 2016 study by the Urban Institute, teenagers in low-income communities are often forced to save school lunches, sell drugs or offer sexual favours because they couldn’t afford food. A 2014 report by the National Center on Family Homelessness states the number of homeless children in the US has reached a record high.

Along with poverty, children in your country suffer in broken families as well. There is a divorce every 36 seconds. That is nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 8,76,000 divorces a year. As a result, only 46 per cent of the children are living with two parents who are both in their first marriage. While in the early 1960s, babies typically arrived after a wedding, today four in ten births in your country occur to women who are either single or live in with a partner.

Honourable US lawmakers, you will agree that a secure home and strong family help a child cope up with poverty better. In your country, a large number of children suffer double disadvantage. They need enormous emotional support from the society to make up for broken homes, apart from monetary assistance. But CI’s heart does not bleed for these hapless American children. It spends around $50 million annually in India as “humanitarian aid”. Why? Because, CI has souls to save for the Christ in India and the US does not offer any such opportunity, since the destitute there are already Christians.

Dear US lawmakers, CI has been duly investigated by Indian officials, within the framework of our legal system, accountable to our Parliament and Judiciary. Is it fair on your part to interfere in our affairs? CI operated through Caruna Bal Vikas Trust in India. Its child “welfare” activities included holding Christian prayers on a daily basis, celebrating only Christian festivals, offering prizes for recitation of Bible verses and holding “Compassion Young Adult Meet”, where a person gives Christian inputs. Are the CI’s objectives not clear? – The New Indian Express, 1 April 2017

Compassion International

  1. Foreign Funding to Indian NGOs (Compassion International) Part I & Part II
  2. Behind the charade of charity, Compassion International was conducting religious conversions – Aravindan Neelakandan

Behind the charade of charity, Compassion International was conducting religious conversions – Aravindan Neelakandan

Compassion International

Aravindan NeelakandanGiven … the multi-religious environment of India, it would be foolish for any secular government to allow a US-based evangelical organisation to take advantage of the poverty in a country to recruit children or foot soldiers for the religious right in the West. – Aravindan Neelakandan

The year was 1901. There was a missionary school in Tindivanam, a small town in Tamil Nadu. A boy declared as the most brilliant in his class was ordered to vacate the boarding school premises and pay all the money that he owed them for boarding and food. The reason for the expulsion was that he would not consent to convert to Christianity. The boy would soon become a child labourer and work with his parents to pay the missionaries. He would also later join a Hindu monastic order.

Swami Sahajananada, both a spiritual seer and a social reformer, could never forget this incident. As a member of the Legislative Assembly of Madras and a social reformer from the scheduled communities, he would later warn the government of the dangers of evangelism of children among the marginalised sections of the population.

Cut to 2010. More than 70 malnourished children from an evangelical house are rescued after complaints of abuse surfaced in Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu. They were tribal children from Manipur.

The same year, 19 more children were rescued from an evangelical children’s home in Chennai. Some of them had been sexually abused.

Earlier, between 2005 and 2006, two children from the North East had died in a New Life Centre, another evangelical children’s house, mysteriously. The subsequent investigation met with a dead end.

In 2005, some Manipuri girls in a children’s home in Chennai spoke up about acts of sexual abuse. “Police questioned the director, but there has been no follow-up,” read a matter-of-fact report in a leading English daily.

It is in this context that the work of Compassion International in India has to be seen. With the amount of money that the Christian organisation pours into the foot-soldier Christian outfits they acquire, that kind of clout can be very dangerous.

For instance, New Life Centre, Delhi, is one of the recipients of Compassion International during the 2009-2014 period. It was, after all, in the Tirunelveli branch of New Life Centre that the two North-East children had died and probe hit a dead end. The money that comes from Compassion International can fuel child abuse in mission houses and be used for predatory proselytising, particularly in multi-religious countries like India.

In 2015, Income Tax officials disclosed that Caruna Bal Vikas (CBV), one of the chief recipients of Compassion International funding of Rs 10 million every year, used only 10 percent of its funding for child development and diverted the rest to 300 other organisations. The officials discovered the discrepancies as early as 2013, one year before the present government took over.

At the time, Compassion International had moved ahead with an astonishing money-routing strategy. The CBV centre was closed, and another body, Adhane Management Consultants Private Limited, was opened immediately and registered as a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Adhane featured the same team as that in CBV, and Compassion International began directing money to all its organisations through this new NGO. This was in May 2014. It’s evident from this series of events that Compassion International is more occupied with strategic operations rather than a group motivated by pure compassion.

The Christian charity says that local churches are so well-respected in multi-religious communities that they do not consider “forced conversion” of children an issue at all. Even as they say this, they add that they ‘do not force conversions’. However, the officials also concede that “yet honestly seek to present the Christian message of hope and the opportunities that it presents”. It is unclear how much of “honestly seeking to present” Christianity to non-Christian children would be considered as “forced”.

Compassion International’s hidden agenda is even a problem in the United States for other religionists and humanists. Joshua Lewis Berg, the director of community programming at Jewish Educational Alliance in Savannah, Georgia, points out that though the aid organisation’s website says they do not require people to believe or convert, there was no doubt that that was their goal. He also points out that their advertisements hid their Christian agenda well. So, then, what kind of child development does Compassion International aim at?

Luis Bush, the fundamentalist evangelist who devised the “10/40 window” in pursuit of an aggressive evangelical crusade in North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, came up with a “4/14 window” in 2009. This targets “children between the age of four and fourteen”. This idea itself was a derivative of Dr Dan Brewster’s idea. Brewster wrote as early as 1996 about “The 4/14 Window: Child Ministries and Mission Strategy”. It was based on his conception that Bush came out with a book titled, The 4-14 Window: Raising Up a New Generation to Transform the World, in 2009.

Dr Wess Stafford, who was then president of Compassion International, wrote in his introduction how the Nazis and Communists had “trained legions of children of carrying their agenda”. He went on to point out that “even the Taliban places great emphasis on recruiting the children”.

Dr Brewster is director for child advocacy for Compassion International in Asia. In a 2011 document, Brewster, while discussing the child ministry in Asian countries including India, quoted another evangelist Peter Hohmann, associated with Boys and Girls Missionary Crusade. The child should be given “a missionary worldview”, he said, adding,

We can give children no greater purpose … to  make His name known in all the world. This is the purpose stated in Bible. This is the purpose we need to impart to our children.

In other words, the aim of Compassion International is to make use of poverty in India to create foot soldiers for evangelism, which the white right-wing evangelists in the US plan in their drawing rooms.

Given the historical context, and the multi-religious environment, of India, it would be foolish for any secular government to allow a US-based evangelical organisation to take advantage of the poverty in a country to recruit children or foot soldiers for the religious right in the West.

That even the supposedly left-liberal New York Times is supporting such a blatant right-wing Christian organisation in India says something.

References

  • Child traffickers from North-East set up base in Tamil Nadu, Times of India, 26 January 2010
  • Chennai-based NGO under IT scanner, The Hindu, 22 June 2015
  • Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Hachette UK, 2012
  • B. Watson, M Clarke, Child Sponsorship: Exploring Pathways to a Brighter Future, Springer, 2014
  • Dan Brewster, Child, Church and Mission (Revised Edition), Compassion International, 2011
  • Joshua Lewis Berg, “‘The Compassion Experience’ and the Marketing of Religion“, 20 April 2016 – Swarajya, 8 March 2017

Compassion International (Caruna Bal Vikas)

10/40 Window Map

See also

NGOs received a whopping Rs 17,208 crore from foreign donors in 2015-16 – Vijaita Singh

Debit Card & Cross

Vijaita SinghThere are 33,000 NGOs registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) that are required to file their annual returns with the Home Ministry. … Of the 16 major donors, at least 14 are Christian organisations, most of them based in the U.S. – Vijaita Singh

Foreign donations to Indian NGOs have surged since the NDA government came to power.

As per figures available with the Home Ministry, which regulates the flow of foreign funds to NGOs and associations in India, the 2015-16 fiscal saw a flow of Rs 17,208 crore from foreign donors, the highest in five years. There were donations of Rs 14,525 crore in 2014-15 and Rs 13,092 crore in 2013-14. In 2012-13, the foreign donations received totalled Rs 9,423 crore, and in 2011-12, Rs 10,334 crore.

There are 33,000 NGOs registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) that are required to file their annual returns with the Home Ministry, but only 19,000 received funds last year.

Of the 16 major donors, at least 14 are Christian organisations, most of them based in the U.S.

Last year, the Home Ministry put Colorado-based Christian NGO Compassion International on its watch-list as it was accused of funding Indian NGOs involved in religious conversions.

The crackdown against the Compassion International, which also figures in the list of the largest foreign donors, led to a diplomatic standoff with the United States. The U.S. Embassy wrote to the Centre, asking it to share evidence to support the allegations.

World Vision International, which is also based in the U.S., sent Rs 300 crore to Indian NGOs last year. Another U.S.-based donor, Give2Asia, sent Rs 105 crore while Canada-based Gospel For Asia sent Rs 830 crore.

Before it was put on the watch-list, the Compassion International had donated Rs 292 crore.

Clean-up exercise

Soon after the NDA government came to power in 2014, a massive clean-up exercise was taken up against NGOs registered under the FCRA. In 2015, the Home Ministry notified new rules, which required NGOs to give an undertaking that the acceptance of foreign funds is not likely to prejudicially affect the “sovereignty and integrity of India or impact friendly relations with foreign states and does not disrupt communal harmony.”

Under the annual returns category, the NGOs were asked to give an undertaking that the foreign funds were utilised in such a way that it did not affect the “security, strategic, scientific or economic interest, public interest, freedom or fairness of election to any legislature or harmony between religious, social, racial, linguistic group, caste or communities.”

The Home Ministry has cancelled the registration of over 10,000 NGOs in 2015 for not complying with the norms.

The registration of Greenpeace International was cancelled on the premise that it compromised the country’s “economic security”.

The MHA also cancelled the registration of Sabrang Trust, an NGO run by Gujarat-based social activist Teesta Setalvad’s and that of noted lawyer Indira Jaising’s Lawyers Collective. Ms. Setalvad and Ms. Jaising are known for their critical stand against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. – The Hindu, 20 February 2017

» Vijaita Singh is a senior assistant editor at The Hindu in New Delhi.

NGO Funds

Christian missionaries will not succeed in India – Mohan Bhagwat

Mohan Bhagwat

DNA“We have forgotten ourselves. We are all Hindus. Let our castes, languages we speak, regions we come from, gods we worship be different. Those who are sons of Bharat Mata, are Hindus. Hence, India is called Hindustan,” – Mohan Bhagwat

Raking up the issue of conversions, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said such attempts are unlikely to be successful in the country as the missionaries “do not have the strength”.

Bhagwat pitched for Hindu unity and asked members of the community to come together irrespective of caste and language.

“… After converting people to Christianity in the US, Europe, they (missionaries) are eyeing Asia. China calls itself secular, but will it allow itself to come under Christianity? No. Will Middle-East countries let it happen? No. They now think India is the place.

“But they should keep it in mind, notwithstanding their strong push over 300 years, only six per cent of Indian population could be converted to Christianity. Because they do not have strength,” he said.

The chief made the remarks while delivering valedictory address at Virat Hindu Sammelan, organised by Bharat Sevashram Sangh in Vansda in the district.

Bhagwat sought to buttress his point by saying how two churches, one in the US and another in Birmingham in the UK, were converted into Ganesh temple and offices of Vishwa Hindu Parishad respectively, by a Hindu businessman in America.

Bharat Mata“This is the condition (of missionaries) in their own countries and they want to convert us. They cannot do it, they do not have that strength,” he added.

Bhagwat asked Hindus to remember “who they are” and that their culture is “superior”.

“Hindu community is in trouble. Which country are we living in? Our own country. This is our land, from the Himalayas (in the north) to the sea (in south). This is the land of our ancestors. Bharat Mata is mother of us all.

“We have forgotten ourselves. We are all Hindus. Let our castes, languages we speak, regions we come from, gods we worship be different. Those who are sons of Bharat Mata, are Hindus. Hence, India is called Hindustan,” he said.

Terming Hindu religion as one based on truth, Bhagwat said Hindus never tried to convert people pursuing other religions as they believe in co-existence.

He urged people of all religions to “walk together” to make the world a better place and India a world leader.

He reaffirmed the RSS stand that Hindus and non-Hindus living in “integrated India” have common ancestors who share the same DNA.

Bhagwat urged the attendees to reach out to their “brothers”, to whom they have not gone for ages, keeping aside differences of caste, religion and language.

“We should go to our brothers whom we have not gone to for ages. We did not go to them and hence these things (spread of other religions) are happening. We should go to them to share their pain, cooperate with them and perform our long-forgotten duty to make them aware of who they are, that we have common ancestors,” he added. – DNA, 31 December 2017

Missionary Visa

Though well-intentioned in his remarks, Mohan Bhagwat is somewhat naive about Christians and their missionary agenda. Conversions continue till today and Modi Sarkar continues to issue special visas to Christian missionaries. Christians being only 6% of the population is an out-of-date figure and very misleading. The true figure is closer to 15%—though nobody really knows as new converts are now hiding their Christian identity in order to grab government handouts meant for the Hindu poor. – Editor

 

India must stand firm against predatory proselytisation by American missionaries – Suhag Shukla

Compassion International

Suhag ShuklaCompassion International is only one player in an industry of humanitarian aid created by American missionaries where the only accepted currency is poor souls. Its marketplace is the 10-40 Window—home to the majority of the world’s Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Its marketing strategy is predatory and not at all concerned with the aid recipients’ religious freedom. – Suhag Shukla

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) placed US-based Church, Compassion International, on its prior permission list earlier this year. The Church came under investigation for allegedly transferring funds to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not registered under the Foreign Contribution Registration Act (FCRA) as required by law. In an unusual show of support from the highest levels of the US government, a special request first came from US Secretary of State John Kerry to the Ministry of External Affairs on the Church’s behalf. On Tuesday, 6 June, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing admonishing India for singling out Compassion International. Compassion International is one amongst several American NGOs currently under scrutiny by the MHA’s FCRA division.

Compassion International’s president and chief executive officer, Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, shared in an Op Ed on The Hill, a heart-wrenching story about a 16-year-old Indian girl named Rinki. As an American of Indian descent, who frequently visits India, I have sadly met many such Rinkis—children and families who are suffering under the crushing weight of poverty, hunger and illiteracy. I’ve also seen, first hand, and supported, many humanitarian NGOs that work in India to alleviate suffering through transformative assistance and empowerment programmes.

Mr Mellado’s article was a continuation of a theme-of-the-week of sorts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a full committee hearing on 6 December entitled, American Compassion in India: Government Obstacles, during which several members of Congress admonished the Government of India for placing restrictions on Compassion International’s ability to carry out its work there.

Mr Mellado presents Compassion International as primarily a humanitarian organisation, which just happens to be founded on “Christian values”. However, its stated mission attests to it being a response to the Great Commission and existing “as an advocate for children, to release them from their spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.” As a Hindu American, a lawyer, and a civil and human rights advocate, and proponent of religious pluralism, I have several concerns both about Compassion International’s methods and our government’s endorsement of them.

First, there is no doubt that there is economic poverty in India. But, I am at a loss as to what Compassion International means by “spiritual poverty” in a deeply religious and tremendously diverse and pluralistic India—an India, which has not just inspired and spoken profoundly to the millions born into the Indic traditions, but scores of seekers and prolific thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Aldous Huxley, to name only a few. What I do know is that there are millions of Christians who wouldn’t find Compassion International’s message or methods very Christ-like.

Second, I am stunned that the House Foreign Affairs Committee would expend resources and diplomatic capital to hold a hearing that unequivocally endorsed Compassion International, an American Church operating in India. The thought of the American government body privileging a particular faith, even as it impinges on the faiths of the majority of a strategic partner country of a billion, is inconceivable, but it did happen.

Caruna Bal VikasThird, why should the US government interfere in the sovereignty of a strategic, democratic ally on behalf of a single non-governmental entity? According to Indian media reports in 2015, investigators found that Compassion International, through its Indian affiliate Caruna Bal Vikas, was distributing funds to NGOs not registered under the Foreign Contribution Act of 2010 (FCRA). This act governs the ability of Indian NGOs to accept foreign contributions and how they are distributed, requiring any NGOs receiving foreign funds to be registered. Caruna Bal Vikas was also found to be distributing funds to many religious NGOs—as opposed to social service NGOs—contradicting their own FCRA application. Mr Mellado’s suggestion that Compassion International is being targeted because it is Christian betrays the fact that consistently the top FCRA approved donors and FCRA recipients of foreign funds are Christian—evangelical and Mormon—as are a good portion of the tens of thousands of FCRA registered NGOs.

Rinki’s parents, like scores of other poor Indian parents, enrolled her in one of Compassion International’s child development centres, where she “enjoys nutritious meals, tutoring and counseling that counters poverty’s debilitating message that ‘you don’t matter’.” Dr Dan Brewster heads the academic programming administered in those centres. He also happens to be a renowned expert in missiology and proponent of the 4/14 Child Ministries and Mission Strategy. 4/14 targets children age four to 14 for evangelising and conversion because of their impressionability and receptiveness, as well as the unique mission opportunities that arise as a result of the vulnerabilities caused by their poverty. Mellado claims that his organisation is being singled out because they demonstrate Christian values—that they serve children and families in India of all religions. But donors are assured that the most important impact of their $38 sponsorship is that their “sponsored child will hear about Jesus Christ and be encouraged to develop a lifelong relationship with God.” Outcomes are monitored in part by the assistance recipients’ “…demonstrated commitment to the Lordship of Christ.”

World Council of ChurchesBy Compassion International’s own methods and measures, desperately needed humanitarian assistance is conditioned on religious conversion—something that both the Vatican and World Council of Churches have called un-Christian and unethical. Where the American government has partnered with faith-based organisations to provide social services both here and abroad, it’s deemed such conditioning illegal. That the government of India should want to curb the exploitation of its poor by foreigners or its own people then, is not only its right, but duty.

It is not my intention to single out Compassion International—its alleged violation of Indian law and our government’s unmerited defence has simply placed it in the spotlight. In reality, Compassion International is only one player in an industry of humanitarian aid created by American missionaries where the only accepted currency is poor souls. Its marketplace is the 10-40 Window—home to the majority of the world’s Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Its marketing strategy is predatory and not at all concerned with the aid recipients’ religious freedom.

India Crossed-OutThe fruit of conversion to a brand of exclusivist Christianity is a cycle of inner, familial, communal and inter-religious strife, and even violence. I’ve heard firsthand accounts of converts, who are often asked to repudiate their community and family, reject traditions and customs that have been passed down for generations, and instructed to avoid attending religious ceremonies and celebrations that are the very basis of daily life. In some instances, converts are paid visits from Church volunteers to ensure that the convert, who may have received a seat for their child in a Church-run school, or much needed medical treatment at a faith-based clinic for their sick spouse, isn’t reverting to the practice of their original faith.

Where in the corpus of human rights law and widely shared notions of dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism should a person ever have to choose between remaining faithful or being full? The Foreign Affairs Committee made the wrong choice this week, but I hope that the Government of India does not relent in protecting its poor against predatory proselytisation. – Swarajya, 10 December 2016

Suhag Shukla, Esq., Executive Director and Legal Counsel, is a co-founder of HAF. She holds a BA in Religion and JD from the University of Florida. As Legal Counsel, Ms. Shukla has helped launch the Foundation as a leading voice for religious freedom.

Nepalese Children

10/40 Window Religions

10/40 Window Map

Christianity’s rise tests Nepal’s new secularism – Peter Janssen

Nepalese Christians

Peter A. JanssenSince the advent of secular democracy in 2008, when the decade-long communist insurgency ended with the resignation of the last king and a pledge to draft a new constitution, Christianity has enjoyed a growing appeal among Nepal’s hill tribe minority groups, such as the Kirats and the Dalits. – Peter Janssen

Saturday is the one day off in Nepal’s working week and therefore has become the holy day for Nepal’s growing Christian community. At the Nepal Isai Mandali-Gyaneshwor Church in Kathmandu about 300 Christians gather every Saturday to pray, sing hymns, listen to Bible sermons and praise the Lord, many of them reverently raising their hands to the ceiling and shouting out “Hallelujah,” “Trust in Jesus” and “Amen.” The Nepali congregation provides a glimpse of what early Christians communities might have been like — simple, friendly and egalitarian—before Rome took over.

“One thing I like about Christians is they believe all Christians belong to one family,” said M. J. Shah, whose own family are descendants of the Shah monarchs who ruled Nepal for more than two centuries. When the country’s absolute monarchy ended in 2008, so did the reign of its last king, Gyanendra Bir Bokram Shah Dev, and the former Hindu kingdom was set on the path to a secular democracy.

“When I was growing up I was told Christianity was not for us. It was only for lower caste people,” said M. J. Shah, who “found Christ” in 2005. His family initially disowned him but have since reunited with him, in acknowledgement of his much-improved personal conduct since his conversion and marriage to another Christian. “Before, I was a gambler, a fighter, a drinker and a drug user. I used to beat people up. I was terrible,” he admitted.

M. J. Shah remains somewhat unique among Nepali Christians. Most significantly, he is related to the royal family and is therefore of a higher caste than most. Christianity has been on the rise since Nepal went secular, at least in name, in 2008. Previously Christian missionaries were banned from the kingdom. Now there are over 8,000 Christian churches in the country and more than one million converts, although exact estimates are difficult to find.

Nepalese Christian ChurchNeed for acceptance

A more typical convert is Dil Maya, a 70-year-old woman from the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste. “My husband Dhan Bahadur fell very sick once and no doctor could cure him,” she said as she attended the Nepal Isai Mandali-Gyaneshwor Church in Kathmandu. “Someone told me to go to a church and pray and that was how I first came here. It healed my husband, and I felt healed, too because for the first time in my life, I felt accepted by a community. No one accepted me before. I feel accepted here.”

Since the advent of secular democracy in 2008, when the decade-long communist insurgency ended with the resignation of the last king and a pledge to draft a new constitution, Christianity has enjoyed a growing appeal among Nepal’s hill tribe minority groups, such as the Kirats and the Dalits. The Federation of National Christians in Nepal (FNCN) estimates that 60% of all Nepali Christians are Dalits, as is their chairman, C.B. Gahatraj.

Dalits account for an estimated 12% of Nepal’s 30 million-strong population, with most of them living in the southern regions neighboring India. Although caste prejudices are arguably on the decline in the new Federalist Nepal, they are still there, especially in rural areas. Dalits are still barred from Hindu temples and from sharing drinking or eating utensils with upper caste Nepalis. “They are converting because they are treated like animals,” M. J. Shah said. “We have to change the structure of our society … then no one would convert.”

The earthquake and aftershocks of April 2015 provided another fillip for the country’s “Christian soldiers.” The quakes, which destroyed more than 800,000 homes and left thousands dead, offered an opportunity for Nepal’s growing Christian community to do what Christians do best—provide charity to the poor and neglected in the name of “brotherly love.” Christian charities managed to distribute relief packages in some of the country’s most remote areas, which the government’s operations failed to reach due to lack of funding or manpower.

“I think the earthquake was one of the reasons for the growing popularity of Christianity,” said Chandra Man Nepali, FNCN’s vice general secretary. “Where the government was not able to reach, there were the Christians. We went to the hard-to-reach districts with food, water and medical supplies. We had funding from the churches outside. In this way, Christians were more helpful to society.”

The earthquake also gave rise to fears that Nepal’s fledgling Christian community was using the natural disaster to help proselytize their faith. Nepalese media reported several cases of Christian charities, notably South Korean ones, passing out Bibles with the relief provisions. Local Hindu politicians were quick to jump on the Christian charities for exploiting vulnerable populations.

New Constitution of NepalBan on proselytizing

Under Nepal’s new constitution, pushed through in September 2015, people have the right to practice their religion but are barred from proselytizing. In fact, the charter implies that the country’s original religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and the animistic beliefs and practices of the Kirat minority (the indigenous race) should be protected. “Secularism means protection of religions and cultures being practiced since ancient times, and religious and cultural freedom,” reads the constitution. Christianity clearly does not qualify as an “ancient” sect in the former Hindu kingdom.

Legal experts argue that the constitution has good reason for banning Christians from advocating their beliefs. “The basic difference between Hinduism and Christianity is that in Hinduism you don’t have the concept of the church, and secondly you don’t have the concept of proselytizing,” said Bipin Adhikari, dean of the school of law at Kathmandu University. “The Hindus, Buddhists and Kirats don’t have the institutional apparatus to convert others so obviously they would like to see some reciprocity.”

Nepali Christians, however, see the anti-proselytizing clause as a form of discrimination. Another source of complaint is that Christian churches are not permitted to register as religious institutions but must do so as non-governmental organizations. Christian-run schools and medical clinics are often visited by local authorities to ensure they are not secretly converting students and patients.

Trying to keep a lid on proselytizing among newly-converted Christians goes against the tenets of the religion, which has from ancient times been about going out and “saving the world.” In modern Nepal, Christianity inspires the same evangelistic fervour it does elsewhere.

“When someone becomes a Christian they can’t shut their mouths from speaking about Christ. That is fundamental,” said Padam Parajali, a FNCN board member.

To date, Nepal’s Christian community has been spared the outright persecution and violent communal outbursts faced by other religious minorities such as Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Even so, some Nepali Christians claim they face discrimination, for example in the jobs market or in general social attitudes. The overall sense of religious coexistence however may be due to the national character of tolerance that the Nepali people are renowned for. Nepali Christians might be wise to partake of that tolerance, at least in the short term.

“There is a sea-change going on in Nepal,” Adhikari said. “First, the monarchy is no longer there, second, the country is no longer a Hindu state, and third, the political system is being adapted as a federal system. So people are getting more educated and they are given more opportunities. The problem is that things move very slowly in Nepal.” – Nikkei Asian Review, 4 December 2016

» Peter A. Janssen is a prize-winning editor and record-setting publisher of US magazines and media.

Christian baptism in Nepal

The politics of religious conversions in Jharkhand – Raksha Kumar

Conversion to Hinduism

Raksha Kumar“The worst thing that conversion does is takes away our identity,” said Mr. Kujur. “We are Christian one day and Hindu the next. There is an erosion of self in all this.” – Raksha Kumar  

Ara, Jharkhand—Early on an idle Sunday morning in late August, Ram Singh Kujur perched on the solitary broken wooden chair outside his mud hut, sipping tea from a disfigured steel tumbler. Sundays never used to be such in the Kujur residence. Seven years ago, the Kujurs would have excitedly woken up early, put on their best clothes and head toward the village church. Now, the family of seven bathes and duly assembles in front of Lord Ram’s idol, positioned in the corner of their single-room house.

“We used to pray once in a week; now we pray every day. I am not sure the God is listening to us though,” said Mr. Kujur, 38, a farmer who owns two acres of land in Ara, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state.

Mr. Kujur and his family converted to Hinduism seven years ago. As a member of the Oraon tribe, his grandfather had converted into Christianity. But in 2006, the late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Dilip Singh Judeo arrived in Ara with the sole agenda of converting 300 Christian families to Hinduism. Mr. Kujur’s was one of them.

Most of the 450 families in this village are adivasis, or tribals, who had converted into Christianity a generation or two ago. The Kujurs decided to convert as they were “fed up” with what they called the Christian double standards.

Mr. Kujur vividly remembered the day he was baptized. “I was 8 years old. The priest sprinkled holy water on my head and named me Gerald Kujur,” he said. From then on, he spent days of the week waiting for Sunday and the months of the year waiting for Christmas. “There used to be beef served in the church on Sundays, and several sweets distributed during Christmas,” he said.

Mr. Kujur was educated in a convent. “They call it missionary school here,” Shashikala, his 32-year-old wife, said. There, Mr. Kujur learned mathematics, science, English and Christianity.

Just as Mr. Kujur began to enjoy the school, the principal of the school, who was also the chief priest of the village, wrote a letter to Mr. Kujur’s father asking him to pay a few hundred rupees as fees. The Kujurs realized that the promise of “free education” expired six months after baptism.

Mr. Kujur remembered bowing in front of a statue of Jesus Christ that day, inhaling the sweet smell of the incense, angry at the injustice. “Is it fair to ask a poor farmer to pay for education when he has nothing to eat?” he had asked.

Two months after Mr. Judeo of the Bharatiya Janata Party converted 300 families in Ara by washing their feet with holy water from the Ganges River and declaring them Hindu, at least 600 tribal people were converted to Christianity in the Vishnupur locality of Gumla district, about 140 kilometers southwest of Ara. The local parish claimed this to be a counter to the Ara conversions by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Jharkhand has been the center of a religious tug-of-war since the 18th century, when a predominantly tribal state saw a flurry of Christian missionaries set up base there. The first Christian missionaries to arrive in the Chotanagpur plateau, which is most of Jharkhand today, were not the Catholics but German Protestants who traveled through Chakradharpur and Khunti to Ranchi. The Anglicans and the Catholics followed.

In the late 19th century, Christian missionaries converted a large number of people, especially tribals. Despite several years of close coexistence, the tribals had maintained their identity separate from the Hindus. The tribals were mostly hunter-gatherers, worshipped their ancestors and nature, ate simple food and celebrated festivals of their own.

According to several scholars, Hindu right-wing organizations like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh came to Jharkhand in the 19th  century to counter the conversion drives of the Christian missionaries.

“We used to have a unique identity,” said Dilip Oraon, a tribal whose family refused to be converted to Christianity or endorse Hinduism. “Today, we are forced to choose between Christianity or Hinduism. We are Sarnas—those with a distinctive identity, independent of both.”

In 2006-2007, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, asked the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Jharkhand to bring a law to ban conversions to religions other than Hinduism in the state. Their allies in the Janata Dal (United) Party were opposed to the bill, and so it was stalled. There are still calls by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS to consider such a bill and to deny government benefits to tribal converts to Christianity.

As per the 2001 census, the latest available, 68.5 percent people of Jharkhand’s 32.96 million people follow Hinduism. Islam is followed by 13.8 percent and there are 13 percent animistic Sarnas. Only 4.1 percent of the population is said to follow Christianity.

These figures are hotly debated by all sections of the population. “The adivasis are Hindus,” claims Lallan Sharma of Vikas Bharti, a nonprofit organization that believes in what it calls the preservation of Hindu values and culture.

Mother Mary RanchiThe Christian organizations counter the claim. “We are Christians by religion and adivasis by race,” said Naman Topno, whose family converted five generations ago.

The debate over religion was revived four weeks ago when a statue of Mother Mary wearing a red-border sari and holding Jesus Christ in a way tribal women of Jharkhand hold their babies was erected by the local church in Singpur village in Dhurwa.

Bandhan Tigga, the dharmguru, or the priest of the Sarna society, said to local media, “The red border means a lot in the Sarna culture. Our women wear white sari with red border during auspicious times. If the idol of Mother Mary is shown in the get-up of a tribal woman, then 100 years from now people will think that Mother Mary was a tribal from Jharkhand,” he said.

Cardinal Telesphor P. Toppo retorted in the local media that the tribal Christians have an equal claim to the sari with red border.

Telesphore ToppoMr. Kujur and his family were familiar with the recent controversy, but they said that in the end, no matter what god they worship, their economic state is the same. “We realize conversion is political,” said Mr. Kujur, “but sometimes we are left with no option.”

When conversions happen, entire villages convert. If only one family dares to convert to another religion, they are outcast by the rest of the families. Therefore, in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, villagers convert by the hundreds.

Gladson Dungdung, author of Whose Country is it Anyway?, about the adivasi community in Jharkhand, said it doesn’t make financial sense for either the Hindu Right or the Christian missionaries to convert just a few families in a village, he said. A huge investment goes into staging a conversion ritual and the political parties would want to make the most of it. “The promised free food, free education and free medicines that lure the tribals also require money,” he said.

When Mr. Kujur was a boy, the church offered incentives to convert, which included rice and milk. However, these faded after about seven to eight months after baptism.

When Mr. Kujur was 22, a neighboring Christian family approached him with a marriage proposal. Mr. Kujur’s father was against the proposal, as marrying an adivasi girl would have entitled them to more benefits from the church.

“You got nothing by marrying a fellow Christian, but if you married an adivasi and converted them, you’d get rice and milk from the church,” he said, smiling. However, he married Shashikala Rajini Minz, the neighbor’s daughter.

It has been seven years since the Kujur family became Hindu, established Lord Ram’s idols in their home, began going to temples and reciting Hindu hymns. But their condition has changed little. They still depend on odd jobs to substitute their income from paddy farming six months out of the year. They still struggle to fortify their rice stew with lentils and carrots, and they still struggle to pay their children’s school fees.

Mr. Kujur’s family sat in a circle on the muddy floor to have their afternoon meal. It took them some months to remember to stop praying to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit before the meal, and switch to prayers for Lord Ram.

Mr. Kujur’s son, Dharma, 16, still remembered the Christian prayers and recited it without any prompting. “I used to be David, you see,” he said, winking, “but we have been told not to recite these prayers anymore before we eat. I don’t know why.”

When Mr. Kujur goes to his fields, he prays to the soil, the trees that surround his fields and the sun god. It is a very adivasi thing to pray to nature that protects your crops, he said. He said his becoming Hindu hasn’t prevented him from doing so.

However, there are several things that still confuse him and his family about what they can do and cannot. “When some RSS activists came home, they instructed us to remove our footwear outside the house,” he said. “They said it is what a good Hindu would do.” But their house has no flooring, so they have to walk barefoot on rough mud.

Members of Mr. Kujur’s family were promised jobs in various government bodies, by both Hindu and Christian authorities. “When my grandfather converted, he was told his son would be educated in a Christian school and then land a job in the government and enjoy pensions for a lifetime. But my father ended up farming and when he died, he owned only a few pieces of cloth,” said Mr. Kujur, with tears in his eyes.

In 2006, when Mr. Kujur converted to Hinduism, RSS officials had promised that his son would be educated in one of the best schools in Ranchi and would then land a job in a government body. Mr. Kujur was doubtful, but said he has few options now.

“The worst thing that conversion does is takes away our identity,” said Mr. Kujur. “We are Christian one day and Hindu the next. There is an erosion of self in all this.”

His wife added that they are so poor that the only thing they have left to sell is their pehchaan, identity. She was grateful that there are still buyers for that. – India Ink, 1 October 2013

» Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.

Sarna tribals protesting against Mary statue, dressed as a tribal woman, at Singhpur in Ranchi, Jharkhand