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, September 01, 2005

History and Conversions

C Alex Alexander
Odenton, Maryland, US
Economic and Political Weekly

Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover ('The Question of Conversions in India', EPW, July 9, 2005) hypothesise that the opposition to religious conversions in India is due to the fact that Christians and Hindus "attribute mutually exclusive properties to religion". In my view, it is the perception of the 'foreignness' of Christianity and Islam, which is the issue rather than the nuances in the varying definitions of religions held by Hindus and Christians. The authors also seem to be uninformed about the history of ancient Christianity in India.

The fear of some Hindu groups of religious conversions appears to be based on the latter's impact on the 'power politics' of India where caste- and religion-based 'vote banks' influence outcomes of elections. The 'foreign' origins of missionary campaigns and the influx of foreign funds into India's Christian institutions and madrasas are also causes for concern. India has to remain vigilant about the impact of foreign cultures and their religions. The recent secession of East Timor from Indonesia and the balkanisation of former Yugoslavia were driven mostly by religious animosities. India has states with both Christian and Islamic majorities whose dissidents also nurture secessionist aspirations. All Indians regardless of religion should be rightly concerned about the incursions which 'foreign cultures' make into India, especially when they are bank-rolled by foreign religious institutions or supported by 'faith-based' humanitarian projects of the US government!

I am an expatriate Indian born in the Indian (formerly Syrian) Orthodox Church in Kerala whose origins go back to at least 400 CE, if not earlier to St Thomas as some would assert. That church was under the spiritual oversight of the Syrian Patriarch while it was threatened by both the Portuguese and the British missionaries who successfully 'converted' large numbers of 'Syrian Christians' to become Latin-rite (Syrian) Catholics and the Mar Thoma (Syrian) Christians. What is left of the original Indian Orthodox Church in Kerala has remained intensely nationalistic, and non-proselytising. It receives no foreign subsidy and elects its own Indian head who resides in Kottayam, Kerala.

Until the arrival of the colonial powers on the Indian shores, the Jews of Cochin, the Indian Orthodox Christians, the Zoroastrians and the pre-Mughal Muslim traders lived amicably with Hindus on India's west coast for nearly 1,500 years. The problems generated by religious conversions began when both the Mughal invaders and the European colonial powers used their religions as subtle tools in exercising political control.

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