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.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Church plan to grab Govt. land; convert Hindus thwarted in Himachal

Prem Kishan

The rustic citizens of Baijnath town in India's Himachal Pradesh state are certainly no pushovers. For over two decades, they had been chafing under the brutal assaults of a local gangster-and-Christian pastor, Ramesh Masih Bhatti. December 3, 2005 changed everything; opening the floodgates of resentment against the evangelical church's violent ways.

Baijnath is an idyllic temple town, set amidst the spectacular Himalayan mountains. It is well-known for its 1200-year old Shiva temple dedicated to Lord Vaidya Nath (God of Healing), one of the twelve ancient Jyotirlinga shrines of India. Every year during the Shivratri fair, thousands of pilgrims descend on Baijnath for the colourful fair and festivities.

Ramesh Bhatti was a local lad who dropped out of middle-school and turned into a small-time gangster, bringing drugs and prostitution to Baijnath. He soon formed his own street gang; forcibly extorting money from traders under threat of violence and groping young girls and married women alike, whenever they wandered into his gang's "turf".

Bhatti's criminal talents and strong-arm tactics soon caught the eye of Simon John, a regional leader for the "Gospel for Asia" (GFA), a notorious Christian evangelical group controlled by the Dallas, USA-based Malayali evangelist K.P. Yohannan. It must be mentioned here that GFA has been lately in the news for sexually abusing Hindu nursing students in Kerala and forcing desperate Tsunami-survivors in Tamil Nadu to convert in return for food and medicines.

GFA was looking to make inroads into this Hindu pilgrim town. According to Rajesh Kumar, a former Bhatti gang-member who was a witness to this meeting, Simon John impressed upon Ramesh Bhatti that he could complement his earnings by becoming an evangelical pastor for GFA. Bhatti was promised ten thousand rupees for every Hindu he could forcibly "harvest" (convert). Once Bhatti agreed and changed his name to Ramesh Masih ('Masih' meaning Messiah or Jesus in the local Hindi dialect), the "evangelizing" and "church planting" work began in full earnest.

Pastor Ramesh Masih's first converts to this lucrative proposition were his family. His alcoholic father also adopted a Christian name, Feroz Masih, and become a GFA pastor to rake in more foreign funds. The Masih family slowly began to unleash their diabolical plan on their unsuspecting townsmen. They would "lend" money to indigent neighbors who had three choices: Either pay back their loans with interest or convert to the Masih family's evangelical church (if they wanted the loans waived) or face beatings and murder threats. Around 60 Hindu families, hailing from the poorer sections, converted to Christianity in this fashion, to save themselves from the evangelical loan-sharks.

Pastor Masih had also encroached illegally on a large tract of prime land belonging to the Himachal Pradesh state government. He built his house and a GFA church illegally on this government land. The local police and administration were powerless against this criminal because he had powerful political connections in the ruling Congress Party.

Masih turned to blaring offensive sermons from his church's loud-speaker system taunting the local Hindus for worshipping "false gods and Satan" and promising converts eternal paradise in exchange for baptism. The last straw came when the Masih family and their goons disrupted the local Dussehra festivities in Baijnath and threw stones at devout worshippers emerging from the local Hindu temple after prayers.

This was literally the last straw for the locals of Baijnath. Enraged by these blatant hate-attacks and the unwillingness of the local police force to enforce the rule of the law, over 2000 citizens protested peacefully and organized a Gandhian Satyagraha outside the illegally built church and Masih residence. Buoyed by this popular outburst of defiance against Masih's gangster church and realizing that this could cascade into state-wide protests, the police force quickly evicted the illegal occupants from the buildings and slammed locks onto the doors. The local Congress Party leaders were quick to sense the local sentiments and capitalized on the situation. The local Congress Party workers organized a symbolic cleansing of the Masih residence and installed in its courtyard a sacred image of Lord Hanuman, a spiritual symbol of strength and courage, who protects the meek against oppression by tyrants.

The common man had triumphed. The Masih-GFA nexus had been exposed and shown their place in civilized society.

Reacting to this unexpected setback, GFA's supremo, K.P. Yohannan, emailed his financial backers and predictably blamed Satan's grip on Hindus of India. Without any proof, he charged that many Hindu organizations were behind this campaign, even though the protesting locals in Baijnath attest that they remain staunch supporters of the "secular" Congress Party.

The Hindu-hater, Yohannan further provoked the local residents by declaring to the media that the Masih GFA-church was "taken over and defiled as a temple" (by alluding to the installation of Lord Hanuman's sacred image in the courtyard of the illegally built Masih building).

Sant Ram, a local tea-shop owner and Congress Party supporter, was rightfully indignant at such a blasphemous accusation. He said "A Hindu murthi (consecrated image) is mocked at as defilement by these Christians. This shows the bigoted attitude of these Padris and shows why their religion want to destroy our ancient Vedic ways in our own land. These Christian missionaries have always hated the Hindu faith and oppressed us for far too long, with their foreign money. They should never underestimate the power of the gentle Hindu, the noble Hindu. Beware the fury of a patient man. When pushed to the wall and cornered, even a pussycat will bare its claws and fight like a tiger."

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