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.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Their Other "Dirty" Linen: Evangelism's Quest to Conquer the World

by S. R. Welch

[Note: A slightly different version of this article was previously published under the title "Sins of the Missionaries" in the February/March 2004 issue of Free Inquiry magazine.]

Each year Americans contribute millions of dollars through corporate-giving campaigns and Sunday tithes to support the "faith-based" humanitarian work of overseas Christian missions. This work--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving medicine to the sick--seems a worthy cause, an outwardly selfless endeavor unsullied by the salacious headlines and bitter disputes now roiling the life of the church at home.

But Christendom's missionaries bear their share of controversy. Though most private donors and corporate sponsors are unaware of it, overseas missions in certain parts of the world have long been embroiled in scandals involving allegations of predatory behavior towards the vulnerable. Though the largely poor and illiterate victims have complained loudly for decades, their allegations involve no sexual misconduct and thus garner few headlines in the West. Their outrage, vented from halfway across the globe, rarely reaches English-language media at all.

Evangelism is waged in earnest in a large swath of the underdeveloped world spanning from North Africa to East Asia. Missionary strategists call this region the "Unreached Bloc" or the "Last frontier."[1] In the rural backwaters and isolated tribal hamlets of countries like India, missionaries routinely peddle the fruits of generosity--food and medicine--as "inducements" for conversion to Christianity. When these allurements fail, more-aggressive means may be employed, not barring fraud and intimidation. As we shall see below, in India at least, "harvesting" souls has become an end that justifies almost any means.

This subordination of humanitarian service to proselytizing is a matter of theology--evangelical Christians believe they hold a divine mandate, their "Great Commission" from God, to spread their creed. But it is also a matter of policy. During his 1998 visit to India, for example, Pope John Paul II bluntly stated that the Christianization of Asia is "an absolute priority" for the Catholic Church in the new millennium. He openly likened the Vatican agenda for that region to its conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His language, says Sanal Edamaruku, founder of New Delhi-based Rationalist International, leaves little room for interpretation, even among secular and progressive-minded Indian citizens. "It is, in fact, not the fantasy of [Hindu nationalists]," he states, "but hard reality ... nothing less than the conversion of ... the Hindus of the world is targeted."[2]

The church's "soldiers" in the field get the message. As a Mumbai (formerly Bombay)-based missionary whom we shall call Paul attests (he asked that his real name be withheld), he and his colleagues in India have been unequivocally instructed by their superiors to "work extra hard in the conversion process and choose any means possible to convert these heathens." With such marching orders, earthly consequences can be cavalierly disregarded. "It's not how we convert that matters," Paul insists. "Conversion is what counts."[3]

In India, considered one of the richest "harvest grounds" in the Unreached Bloc, the methods employed by missionaries like Paul have stirred seething bitterness and resentment among the "heathen" public. Perhaps no mission tactic galls more bitterly than the intentional targeting of any society's most vulnerable members--its children.

Missionaries have long capitalized on the leverage they exercise over India's young through thousands of church-run hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In a 1923 report to Rome gleefully titled "The Spiritual Advantages of Famine and Cholera," the Archdiocese of Pondicherry related how a famine had "wrought miracles" in a local hospital where "baptismal water flows in streams, and starving little tots fly in masses to heaven." A hospital is a "ready-made congregation," the report contended, where there is "no need to go into the ... hedges and compel them to 'come in.'" Thanks to infection, they "send each other."[4]

Thirty years later, a government inquiry exposed the wile by which the baptismal water had been made to follow so easily. Catholic priests had been instructed to learn something of medicine in order to gain access to the bedsides of sick Hindu (and Muslim) children. There, on the pretext of administering medicine, the priests secretly baptized the children before they died.[5] What is troubling are the reports that this practice continues today, with formulas of baptism whispered and holy water sprinkled surreptitiously over non-Christian patients even in the hospices of such well-known orders as the Missionaries of Charity.[6]

Christian missionary schools, too, remain ubiquitous in modern India. Many Hindu families believe that missionary schools offer a good education; for others, a church-run school is their only, or only affordable, option. Nonetheless, these schools can abuse parents' trust by trolling the classroom for converts. In one highly-publicized 1998 case, the I. P. Mission Girls' School in the town of Rajkot, Gujurat state, issued New Testaments to Hindu schoolgirls and pressured them to sign declarations of Christian faith. The declaration, printed on the last page of each New Testament volume, stated that each signatory was a "sinner" and that she had accepted the Lord Jesus as her "personal savior."[7]

Naturally, parents were outraged. Not only was this "conversion" performed without their consent--illegal in India when minors are involved--but several girls reported that school staff had intimidated them into signing the declaration. Parents and other Hindus marched to the school to protest, and a wave of publicity quickly mounted. Embarrassed, the school recalled the New Testaments and published an apology with the promise that "such literature" would not be distributed again.[8]

Along with the apology, the school accurately denied a rumor alleging that protesting parents had burned copies of the Bible during their demonstration. Nevertheless, this rumor circulated wildly in the India's English-language press and was later repeated uncritically by Western media, adding fuel to a propaganda campaign that claimed that Christians in India faced regular persecution from Hindu fundamentalists. Since the campaign began, the money to missions in India has increased considerably--demonstrating that prosecution of the Great Commission requires more than Bibles and baptismal water. John Joseph, a Christian member of the National Minority Commission charged with investigating reported cases of persecution, complained that most of the cases that hit national and international headlines in recent years were nothing but "colorful lies, half-truths or highly exaggerated stories unleashed by Indian Christian NGOs and missionary groups to mobilize Christian donor agencies to open their wallets."[9]

Even when the wallets are open, overseas ministries feel strong pressure to pay at least part of their own way. Some missionaries have become quite inventive fundraisers; others have sought revenue in less than ethical ways, as recent exposures of child-adoption rackets in missionary orphanages have revealed.

Like parochial schools, church-run orphanages have long been fixtures of Christian evangelism in India. Legally wards of the orphanage, the children are usually raised as Christians, and it is not uncommon for those who do not find homes to adopt the church as their surrogate family and become priests or nuns when they mature. This swells the ranks of native clergy, a welcome bonus given the dearth of seminary admissions in the West. Distasteful as this may be to many Hindus, an Indian orphanage is within its rights to raise its wards as it sees fit. Still, those rights do not extend to fraud. But fraud is what twenty-five families encountered in 2001 in Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous state in India's northeast.

With the promise of providing their children an education, a Catholic priest from the neighboring district of Nagaland reportedly charged parents 10,000 rupees per child (about $250 each) for tuition, room, and board at the St. Emmanuel Mission Convent in Rajasthan, some 2,500 kilometers away in India's northwest. That price was high, but parents considered it a bargain for a "sahib-run" (i.e., Western-style) school. Some parents later developed misgivings, however, and traveled to Rajasthan to visit their children. On arrival they were shocked to discover that the children were not enrolled at St. Emmanuel's. In fact, they were not in any school at all--they had been placed in an orphanage. The priest who ran the orphanage said he had paid 5,000 rupees per child to a fellow priest--from Nyasaland--and allegedly demanded compensation for this sum before releasing the children to their families.[10]

The victims of such schemes typically come from India's "tribals," Hindu communities in India's most underdeveloped enclaves that have retained distinct local cultures that set them apart from the modern Indian mainstream. Illiterate and desperately poor, tribals rank high on missionaries' target lists for conversion. They are the unreached of the Unreached.

Both Rome and its Protestant competitors have been particularly aggressive in efforts to convert the tribals. Exploiting customs that make female children economic burdens on their families, missionaries reportedly induce tribal mothers to relinquish baby girls shortly after birth. Often the mothers are promised that rich Westerners will adopt their daughters and they will live a "much better life." The mother is typically paid about $70 for her child, which is then adopted by Western parents for a "donation" of $2,500.

There is an irony to the notion of tribal "orphans," according to Arvind Neelakandan, a volunteer with the Vivekananda Kendra (VK), a Hindu nonprofit that works among the tribals. In most tribal communities, Neelakandan explains, "Orphans as we know them are nonexistent"; parentless children are typically cared for by their extended family. But, he explains, missionaries will "fleece money from their foreign donors by projecting these very same children as 'orphans'" in fundraising campaigns. Indignant, Neelakandan suggests that, rather than focusing their efforts on schemes to raise money or allure converts, evangelists ought to focus on the social betterment of tribals, particularly their young girls. The VK, for instance, specializes in educating tribal girls in useful--and secular--subjects such as science and mathematics.[11]

The practice of allurement, or providing "inducements" to the poor in return for their conversion to Christianity, is quite common, and one that many missionaries readily admit using. It is also nothing new. In the days of the Portuguese invaders, the Jesuits simply paid Hindus by the hundreds to participate in mass baptisms. Today's methods are more subtle: conversions are now "bought" with food, medicine, promises, and micro-loans. Micro-lending programs are increasingly popular, providing a revenue stream for cash-strapped missions as it adds financial credit to the other blandishments missionaries can offer in exchange for conversion.

The practice of enticing the hungry and sick to Christianity with offers of food and medicine is not illegal per se, but is hardly ethical--especially given that so many of the tribals and dalits ("untouchables"), who are its typical targets, have little or no understanding of the concept of religious "conversion." The notion of conversion as such is alien to Hinduism. Recognizing this, Mohandas Gandhi criticized the practice in no uncertain terms: "I strongly resent these overtures to utterly ignorant men," he once protested, criticizing missionaries who, in order to gain converts, "dangle earthly paradises in front of them [dalits] and make promises to them which they can never keep."[12]

Whatever one calls the offer of material allurements in exchange for religious conversion, it does not deserve the appellation of "charity." But this is lost on missionaries like Paul, who offers no apologies when confronted with Hindu objections. "If Hindus believe that certain tactics like offering money, food or clothes to their naked children in return for embracing Christ is immoral, then what can I say?" he protests. "All congregations and missionaries have been advised to follow these techniques, as others will only fail. Sounds immoral but that is the only way."

One cannot help but ask how conversions garnered through allurements can in any way be considered sincere, to say nothing of genuine, in the sense that the convert has experienced a significant change in beliefs. This has been a longstanding criticism of evangelical methods, and missionaries in India are reminded of it each time money runs short: they are forced to renege on their promises, and their flocks return to Hinduism. But when asked how aping conversion for a bowl of food could be considered a "real" conversion, Paul has a quick, if rather optimistic, answer. "Embracing Christ through 'food,' 'shelter' or some other way may be considered a full conversion," he says, because "their children," being raised in the Church, "will soon be one-hundred-percent Christian."

History suggests otherwise. Duarte Nunes, the missionary prelate of Goa, expressed the very same doctrine as far back as 1520.[13] Almost five hundred years have since passed, much of that time under the rule of pro-Christian imperial governments, and yet Christians stand at no more than 2.4 percent of India's population. That may be why, out of either impatience or desperation, some missionaries have chosen to adopt more persuasive measures than allurement to secure conversions.

In the time of Duarte Nunes, support of the Portuguese military allowed the Jesuits to have Hindus forcibly seized and their lips smeared with pieces of beef, 'polluting' them as Hindus and thus making Christianity their only option for salvation.[14] Such blatancy is not possible today. Instead, the violence of others can be used as a threat.

The tribal village of New Tupi lies in a deep, forested valley in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. It also borders the district of Nagaland, where a guerilla war between Naga separatists and the Indian government has ground on for years. A Protestant missionary started a primary school in New Tupi and actively evangelized there for a number of years. Response to his ministry was lukewarm, however, and villagers report that their pastor was feeling pressure to move on to greener "unreached" pastures. Failing to uproot the people from their traditional Vaishnavite faith (a monotheistic branch of Hinduism) apparently became a prestige issue with him, so as a last resort he played what could be called his "trump card."

The pastor of New Tupi began preaching a new sermon. According to villagers, he told them to "get converted within one and a half months," or else "everybody will be in trouble." In his warning he allegedly invoked the name of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN, the gun-toting insurgents in nearby Nagaland who, as locals know well, indulge in kidnapping and extortion. The people of New Tupi clearly got the pastor's message: Convert to Christianity now, or terrorists may soon arrive at your doorstep.[15]

Sadly, this is not solely the behavior of a few renegade clergy. Displaying the "neurosis of the converted," as V. S. Naipaul terms it, many ex-Hindu converts seek to demonstrate their faithfulness to their new creed by affecting open hostility toward the faith they abandoned. This hostility is usually expressed through contemptuous labeling: calling Hindus "heathens" and Hinduism "demonic" or "evil." Too often, contempt manifests as physical aggression: disrupting Hindu festivals, harassing recalcitrant family members or neighbors, and desecrating Hindu temples and relics.

Tension between converted tribals and their Hindu neighbors had gained national press coverage in Dangs, a district in Gujurat state. The conflict grew so intense that villages and even families were being rent apart. In 1999, India's National Human Rights Commission convened a special investigation into the conflict. Some of the most damning testimony that investigation heard was given by Ghelubhai Nayak, a respected social scientist and disciple of Gandhi, who has worked in tribal welfare in Dangs for over fifty years.

In his testimony, Nayak said that the conflict in Dangs was rooted in the work of the Christian missionaries. In the preceding three years, Nayak stated, there had been at least fifteen instances in which Christian converts, "under the influence of their preachers," desecrated idols of the Hindu saint Hanuman, who has been venerated by the Dangs tribals for generations. In one incident, he said, the converts urinated on a statue of Hanuman, in another they "crushed Hanuman's idol to pieces and threw it away in the river." In addition to the desecration, Nayak testified, converts had raised the ire of their Hindu neighbors by repeatedly publicly denouncing Hindu saints as shaitans, or "Satans." This was done, again "under the influence of their preachers." The native clergy, it seems, where also ex-Hindus afflicted with the Naipaulian "neurosis."[16]

On the whole, no one can deny that through the efforts of Christian evangelists, thousands of people across the developing world have been fed and clothed. But the question remains, when the benefits of mission work are weighted against the social costs of aggressive proselytizing, are the peoples of the Unreached Bloc better or worse off for having Christian missionaries in their midst?

One has to wonder. According to the World Evangelization Research Center (WERC), there are more than four thousand mission agencies. Collectively they operate a huge apparatus, manned by some 434,000 foreign missionaries wielding an annual global income of eighteen billion dollars. And yet, for all the money that is spent--an astonishing average of $359,000 for every person baptized--the benefits of evangelism are meager.[17] Even harsher realities are revealed by WERC research, which finds that most plans to evangelize the world have fallen "massively short" of stated goals and reveal that church embezzlement equals the annual global income of the missionary enterprise.[18]

Meanwhile, the quality of life for India's Christian population remains dismal. Despite "crocodile-tears for the oppressed," says Edamaruku, and contrary to apologists' frequent boast that Christianization brings justice and equality to the "untouchables," dalits who convert find that as Christians, they remain "as 'untouchable' as they had been as Hindus."[19] While more than 75 percent of the Catholics in India are dalits, dalits make up less than 5 percent of Indian priests. Most priests come from upper castes. The vast majority of the church hierarchy is upper caste also, a fact bitterly lamented by Christian "untouchables."[20]

Undeterred, Christendom forges ahead with its drive to plant churches. As Paul tells us, the Vatican planned to add forty percent to its missionary budget for India in 2003. "That could mean a lot of rupees," he says. "More churches will be built in India, thus more converts." That those rupees could be spent on more productive endeavors does not occur to him.

Even the assertion that mere exposure to Western ideas and institutions provides some benefit holds little water, particularly when the principal effect of mission work is to replace one set of superstitions with another. Tales of miraculous healings, even exorcisms, are frequently found in evangelical newsgroups. In a typical testimonial, an ex-Hindu claimed that, after losing her sight following a fever, her husband had practiced Hindu "witchcraft" on her but could not heal her. But, after "accept[ing] the Good News" and taking a vow "never to worship idols," the woman "felt a touch" on her eyes and was miraculously made to see. "Now," she says, "I am all right and all my family members have accepted Jesus Christ."[21]

This is hardly the fruit of Western "enlightenment." In the end, evangelism seems to offer little more than an exchange of idolatry for bibliolatry, gods for devils, and magic for dogma. Meanwhile, families are ruptured, division sown among communities, and ancient traditions no less valid or holy than those striving to replace them are disparaged for the sake of a jealous ideology bent on homogenizing the world.

It is not widely advertised in the West that Gandhi, that icon of compassion and self-sacrifice, detested proselytizing. In his Collected Works, he states categorically that "the idea of conversion ... is the deadliest poison which ever sapped the fountain of truth."[22] If missionaries could not conduct service for its own sake, he said, if the price of their charity was conversion, he preferred that they would quit India altogether. This was a man who was neither a Hindu "fundamentalist" nor extremist. And he well knew the suffering and need of his poorest countrymen.[23]

Nonetheless, missionaries in the field remain ever optimistic, albeit misguided, about what they are doing. "I do admit our means of conversation are almost horrible in nature," admits our friend Paul, "but I suppose we are doing this for a reason." Self-doubt seems to hover in his words, but he then finds harbor in a familiar rationale. "The reason is Christ. It is honorable."

He then pauses and asks, "Wouldn't you say so?"


[1] "The Last Frontier," International Mission Board, December 19, 2002, An entire research industry, deploying specialized racial and linguistic databases, ethnic mapping projects, and training resources, has been mobilized for the world evangelism movement. See, for instance, Global Mapping International ( An updated version (November 6, 2003) is available at

[2] Sanal Edamaruku, "Indian Rationalists Defend the Right to Criticize Pope," Rationalist International 22 (October 25, 1999). See also "Vatican's Asian Agenda Revealed," 25 (November 14, 1999).

[3] Paul [pseud.], e-mails to author, 23 December 2000, through 03 February 2001.

[4] Arun Shourie, Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas (New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 1994), p. 16.

[5] Government of Madhya Pradesh, Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee, (Nagpur: Government Printing Press 993, 1956), vol. 2 part B, p. 54, quoted in Shourie, p. 8. The document is also available online at

[6] Particularly notable is the memoir of Susan Shields, former member of the Missionaries of Charity, whose unpublished manuscript, In Mother's House, is quoted in Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 43-50. Shields also published a brief article in FREE INQUIRY concerning her experiences ("Mother Teresa's House of Illusions," Free Inquiry, Winter 1997/98, pp. 31-32.)

[7] I. P. Mission Girls' High School, declaration of faith (July 1998, photocopy with translation).

[8] Office of the Principal, I. P. Mission Girls' High School, letter to Rajkot VHP and Bajrang Dal (July 1998, photocopy with translation). See also Ravindra Agrawal, "Church Conspiracy in the Guise of Service," available online at

[9] Sanal Edamaruku, "Are Christians Really Persecuted in India?" Rationalist International 43 (27 July 2000).

[10] Vishwinath, "Church as an Edifice of Fraud!" Breezy Meadows (organ of the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalayas Arunachal Pradesh Trust) 2, no. 9 (July 2001): 3.

[11] Aravindan Neelakandan, personal e-mail to author, 11 January 2002.

[12] Mohandas Gandhi, The Collected Works (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1976) 64:400.

[13] M. D. David, ed., Western Colonialism in Asia and Christianity (Bombay: Himalaya Publishing House, 1988), p. 8, quoted in Sita Ram Goel, History of Christian-Hindu Encounters, AD 304 to 1996 (Voice of India, 1996), p. 14.

[14] David, p. 19, quoted in Goel, p. 12.

[15] Vishwinath, "Pastor Threatens to Call Army of the 'Good Shepherd' to New Tupi!" Breezy Meadows 2, no. 6 (April 2001): 4.

[16] Ghelubhai Nayak, (fax transmitted to Special Bench of the National Minorities Commission, India, 7 January 1999), quoted in Arvind Lavakare, "A Gandhian Speaks Out from Dangs," Rediff On the Net, 19 January 1999 (19 December 2002),

[17] David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, "Status of Global Mission, 2004, in Context of 20th and 21st Centuries," World Evangelization Research Center, January 2004 (July 12, 2004), online at Nor are the mid-2004 figures unusual: Barrett and Johnson noted that "ecclesiastical crime" exceeded mission income by $1 billion in their 2003 report. According to their mid-2004 report, ecclesiastical crime is growing at more than 6 percent per year and is projected to exceed mission income by $5 billion in 2025!

[18] $20 billion in "ecclesiastical crime" versus $20 billion in global income. See Barret and Johnson.

[19] Sanal Edamaruku, "God Longs for All Hindus! Covert Operations of the Evangelical Church in India," Rationalist International 83 (29 November 2001).

[20] See "Problems and Struggles: Archbishop Arulappa Condemns Vatican for Promoting a Dalit Bishop as His Successor," Dalit Christians (19 December 2002),

[21] "India: And the Blind Receive Sight!" Fax of the Apostles (April 2001), quoted in "Religious World News for Mission Mobilizers," Brigada Mission Mobilizers, 27 April 2001. Electronic subscription.

[22] Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1971) 64:203.

[23] Gandhi, 46:28.

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