The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Warning Bells

Posted online: Tuesday, April 22, 2003 at 0000 hours IST

by BALBIR K. PUNJ

The recent three-part exclusive report in The Indian Express, ‘‘It’s conversion time in Valley’’, has underlined the revolting reality often denied by the ‘‘Secularists’’ — that the evangelisation machinery is at work in the country. The ‘‘secular’’ cabal (read, Congress, Communists and Communalists combine) has always dismissed such reports as rumours spread by the Sangh Parivar as part of its devious agenda. But when a national daily of The Indian Express’ stature highlights the issue, the matter must be serious. And I suspect that one reason why it may be serious for ‘‘Secularists’’ is because it concerns Muslims, not Hindus.

Yet, the report held a big element of surprise for me. Most of us had taken it for granted that missionaries target only weaker sections of Hindu society, clinically avoiding the Muslims. The ‘‘Secularists’’, on the other hand, had attributed conversions to prevalence of casteist inequalities in Hindu society. Moreover, Islam claims its finality over Christianity and the Koran lays down a clear injunction: ‘‘O ye who believe! Take not Jews and Christians for friends. They are friends to one another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk! (5.51)’’.

And unlike in Hinduism, in an ideal Islamic society, a murtad (apostate) deserves to be publicly killed — it is literally so in many Arab countries. Try taking a Bible or a picture of Christ inside Saudi Arabia and see what happens. No Jewish diplomat is allowed a posting in Saudi Arabia. American soldiers stationed in the kingdom since 1991 can’t openly wear their crosses or stars of David.

Moreover, whether in Pakistan, Arab countries or Indonesia, the Christian minority is under great stress. The scars of human rights violation in Christian Eastern Timor by Muslim Indonesia have not healed fully yet. Whereas the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Christian Serbs in early 1990s shocked the civilised world. Especially after 9/11, one could feel only a spirit of vengeance and animosity between Christians and Muslims.

Given this background, it took me quite a while to believe that evangelists are working amidst the Muslims without any undesirable fallout. More astonishing is that some pastors intrepidly preaching Christianity in Kashmir are Hindu converts. No doubt they are bringing a ‘‘healing touch’’ quite different from that of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. With 15 of them operational all over the Valley and the estimated folk-count crossing 12,000 (when Kashmir’s native Christian population was 650), it is by no means a mean achievement. God forbid, if any calamity were to befall them at the hands of Islamic radicals, America’s sympathy is likely to attend to them sooner (as in East Timor) than the hapless flight of three lakh Kashmiri Hindus.

Having argued the Christian case, I must admit that there is a seamy side to the story also. Jesus, the Nazarene, was born and died in poverty. But the Vatican and allied Christian groups make no bones about using money as their primal leverage for ‘‘harvesting souls’’. And it’s no surprise that the Campus Crusade for Christ could afford to pay every fresh recruit in the Valley Rs 12,000 per month, plus perks and other expenses. Would this then not appear to be a more lucrative career choice for some Kashmiri Muslim youths — with hard cash which not even a terrorist organisation would have paid him for picking up an AK-56 against the Indian Army. An estimate of the money involved would indeed be mind-boggling. Yet, monetarily speaking, the Christian groups’ targeting of Kashmir is a cost-effective choice. The World Evangelisation Research Centre estimates that it takes 700 times more money to baptise a convert in rich countries like Japan and Switzerland than in a poor country like Nepal.

Asia, the motherland of all accredited religions, is most kaleidoscopic in religious terms. The spectrum stretches from Muslims of Arabia, Jews of Israel to Hindus of India, Buddhists of Laos and Communists of North Korea. Asia, the birthland of Christianity, also provides the greatest challenge to the spread of this religion. The Pope meant business when he laid down his agenda in his November 1999 speech in New Delhi where he called for Evangelisation of Asia in the 3rd millennium AD, on the lines of Europe and America in the 1st and 2nd respectively. Note that this brazen declaration was sounded not in far-off Vatican Palace but on the soil of India — the country that extended the Pope a stately welcome. Interestingly, his next stopover after New Delhi was Tbilisi (Georgia), a 70 per cent Eastern Orthodox Christian country. Even though President Eduard Shevardnadzehe accorded him a ceremonial welcome, he was boycotted by the Church who did not want a ‘‘Vatican agenda’’ in Georgia!

If the Church is using all its money and muscle power to ensure conversions in India, why does it not reflect in the census? The Express report quoted proselytised people who keep their conversion strictly confidential. However, surely their names appear in the Chruch records? Here comes the concept of Crypto-Christians, who are in the official record of Churches but don’t declare it publicly. So, while the Christians claim that their ratio is steadily dwindling, the true story is somewhat different.

Some parts of India like Meghalaya and Nagaland have become Christian-majority states since independence. The exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley, though less deplored, is fairly well publicised. But the plight of non-Christian Rhiangs, driven out from Christian Mizoram and living in Assam and Tripura for the last 20 years is scarcely known. The World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press), edited by David D. Barrett and Todd Johnson, estimated that Christians form about 4.3 per cent of our population. Obviously, most of them are Crypto.

Assumptions that Christian religious expansion was over with the end of colonial rule are naive and misplaced. It is true that for over 20 centuries, Christians have announced 1,500 global plans to evangelise the world. Most failed, while 250 plans focussed on AD 2000 fell massively short of the stated goals. But from three million in AD 1500, evangelists have grown to 648 million worldwide, 54 per cent being non-Whites. As Christianity loses its numerical base and popularity in the West, its survival as an industry is dependent on overseas proselytisation.
The Government of India has prohibited the formal entry of missionaries ‘‘for spreading the good news’’ since 1975. But as the Joseph Cooper incident showed, the law could always prove ineffective. And the Kashmir report has shown how Christianity could grow by proxy. Readers should decide whether this is really ‘‘good news’’.

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