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Rohit Dhankar

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SUMMARY

(explanations and justifications for the claims made in the summary are in the main artcile.)

The vandalization of Churches and conversions: even if the church is converting people attacks on the churches are totally unjustified, anti-constitutional, vandals should be punished and condemned in the strongest terms.

Conversions and the Catholic Church: in attempts to understand this issue we should make a distinction between an ordinary Christian’s intentions, activities and the church’s intentions and activities. The church may be into conversion while an ordinary Christian may not like it.

The official position of the church on conversion: as per the published documents of the Catholic Church it is established to converting the world to Christianity and will continue to do so till the kingdom comes.

The Christ is the only saviour: according to the church the salvation is possible only through Christ.

The Asian problem: church has devised pedagogy and strategies specially suited to Asian cultures. And would like to convert the Asia to Christianity in the 3rd millennium.

Is the Church talking of conversion of heart in all this? There is an explanation that the church only wants to proclaim Christianity and when talks of conversion, it’s is conversion of heart. This explanation is nothing more than a falsehood.

The Church only serves the people: the church renders very laudable service to the poor is a fact. The motive, as far as the official documents are concerned, is always conversion. In practice it may not be so, it is an issue of empirical research.

Does the church use allurements in its evangelical work? Officially NO. In reality it is an issue of empirical research.

Those who leave Hinduism do so on their own accord: seems to have some truth in it. But there is a difference between “leaving on one’s own accord”, and ‘fishing in the troubled waters’. Missionaries seem to be doing the later.

Impact on Hindu organisations: they are resisting, learning fast from the missionaries and gearing up for a battle for ‘soul’. Some of them are doing it badly and indulging in violence, it seems.

How should a common Indian citizen respond to this scenario?

A constitutional right: Preaching including conversion is a constitutional right of the church in India. No one need to feel guilty or hide it. All Indians have to accept this.

From the moral point of view: conversion cannot be defended in today’s world.

Social cohesion: Conversion will produce social tension, the state and liberal Indian citizens should try to contain this tension.

It seems we all have to learn how to live in peace and harmony, in the given complex reality till we change it. Neither denials nor violent reactions are justified. We have to raise our own consciousness, understand human failings and have to respect each human beings in spite of these failings. Indian democracy is passing through trying times. Its future depends on our collective wisdom, confidence in human intelligence and deep concern for wellbeing of all Indians; actually of all humanity. We all have to refrain from imposing our own dogmas on others—be they religious, political, or atheist. And in spite of non-imposition we have to keep the care for others intact and rational dialogue open with all our opponents. The much derided secularists I am sure can do this; but can the Church and the RSS/parivar do it too?

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Whenever there is any incident involving the Christian community or any church a small debate begins. Some elements of this debate are very essential for a healthy democracy. For example there is always a very strong condemnation of the miscreants and reiteration of safe guarding the secular character of the country. This forces the government to create a reassuring environment and also sends a signal to the perpetrators of such acts that the society in general condemns such activities.

Almost always there are also assertions from the right wing that these incidents are a result of conversion related activities of the Church. The response to such assertions is mainly composed of counter assertions that there are no conversion activities on part of the Church. And if there are any conversions taking place from Hinduism to Christianity that is a result of deplorable position of the Dalits and adivasis in that society. These three contentions and counter contentions need a closer examination.

The vandalization of Churches and conversions

Saying that the vandalization happens because of conversions is a totally unacceptable defense of the vandals. Even if the church is active in conversion, vandalization and attacks are still heinous acts from the moral point of view and punishable crime from the legal point of view. It disregards the secular constitution of the country which provides guarantee of freedom to profess and preach one’s religion to every citizen. By advancing such and argument the right wing people are only exposing their own anti-constitutional position and anti-Christian biases. This argument in the debate, therefore, should be exposed and countered strongly.

Conversions and the Catholic Church

This is an often made claim, by the liberal Indians from all religions, that the church in India does not attempt to convert. Church usually keeps silence on this issue, neither confirms that it is into conversions nor denies it. Simply emphasizes its development and welfare activities. When there is a pointed mention of someone like Mother Teresa church functionaries express “sock” and anguish; as if it is unthinkable.

This claim, that the Catholic Church in India does not work to convert people to Christianity, seems to be totally false. But before we can get a hang on this issue we need to make a few distinctions. The common person belonging to Christianity may not have the same attitude to conversion as the church. India is a secular democracy because the common Indians are very tolerant and open minded regarding the religions; be they Christians or from any other religion. If they were in agreement with their priesthood and religious organizations our secularism and democracy would have been almost impossible. Therefore, the attitude of the church on the issue of conversion may not be the same as a common Christian.

The second distinction we need to make is between the official position and strategy of the Church on one hand, and actual efforts (actions) of the church on the other. There is a theoretical possibility that the official position of the church might be to exert all effort for converting non-Christian Indians to Christianity but all churches in India may not take that equally seriously in their actual functioning. The third point that we should remember is that every effort may not succeed. Therefore, the fact that percentage of Christians in India is as low as 2% does not prove that the Church has spared any efforts to convert people. This could be simply a failure in spite of all efforts.

The official position of the church on conversion

There is no room for doubt on the official position of the Church on conversions. The church was established to proclaim the Gospel to all creatures of the world. According to “Dogmatic Constitution of The Church”[i] (DCC), a document issues by the Second Vatican Council (V-II) the church was set “on its course by” the Christ himself, and this course was “preaching the Good News” of “the coming of the Kingdom of God”. This was the mission. The church and the missions are ne and the same thing. The “Ecclesia In Asia”[ii] (EA), an exhortation given by the Pope John Paul II after long deliberations of the Special Assembly of Bishops of Asia, declares that “the time for missionary activity extends between the first coming of the Lord and the second, in which latter the Church will be gathered from the four winds like a harvest into the kingdom of God. For the Gospel must be preached to all nations before the Lord shall come.”

The Christ is the only saviour

Other religions in the church documents are accepted to have some spiritual value. But the salvation comes only through the Christ. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe, shall be condemned”. (The Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church[iii], (DMAC) V-II.) The EA declares “On the eve of the Third Millennium, the voice of the Risen Christ echoes anew in the heart of every Christian: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.”

The Asian problem

The Asian Bishops in their special assembly noted that it is difficult to proclaim the Christ as the only saviour in that continent. As the Asians have their own rich cultures and religions; in that tradition they do not have much problem in accepting Jesus as one of the saviours or divine being among many (his is not true of all Asia, but only of Indian origin religions); but acceptance of him as the only savour does not go well with their cultural traditions. But the assembly, far from being discouraged by this, proclaimed that “the heart of the Church in Asia will be restless until the whole of Asia finds its rest in the peace of Christ, the Risen Lord”.

Is the Church talking of conversion of heart in all this?

The EA that Pope John Paul II issued in India in 1999 declares that “just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, …, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent”. This raised a hue and cry in India at that time. Rev. Dominic Emmannuel, the spokesman for the Indian Bishops’ Conference, tried to explain it away by saying that the Indians “see it only as a change of religion. The church is talking about a conversion of heart.” This plea was obviously a falsehood if one read EA, but is still invoked today by many.

But even a cursory reading of the EA makes it amply clear that the issue is baptising into Christianity. Since Asians are reluctant to accept the Christ as the only saviour a special “pedagogy” suited to the Asian cultures needs to be devised. This involves presenting the Christ in Asian idiom, starting with narratives of spiritual fulfilment, making him look like ‘wise teacher’ etc. but the dogma should always be faithful to the scriptures; and the liturgy, though may accept some Asian symbols, should remain strictly as per the Christian tradition.

This zeal for conversion should be manifest in everything the church does. Education, particularly of the deprived sections, is poor in Asia, so the church should address this need through educational institutions, and the “Catholic schools should continue to be places where the faith can be freely proposed and received.” (AE)

The assertions that the Catholic Church in India is not interested in converting people to Christianity, therefore, is totally false.

The Church only serves the people

It is often claimed that whatever may be the official position the church only serves the people and does not try to convert them. At a speculative level this does not seem to be true. The Asian problem mentioned above makes it very clear that there are ways of working for conversion, and all the service so often mentioned could be a preparation for the ground for conversion when suitable time comes. The Ecclesia in Asia itself gives very clear indication of this: The “evangelization today is a reality that is both rich and dynamic. It has various aspects and elements: witness, dialogue, proclamation, catechesis, conversion, baptism, insertion into the ecclesial community, the implantation of the Church, inculturation and integral human promotion. Some of these elements proceed together, while some others are successive steps or phases of the entire process of evangelization”. That explains that even when there is no direct conversion, all evangelical work is a preparation for that one and the only purpose.

But the real question remains empirical: are the catholic churches in India directly encouraging people to convert? Many studies suggest they are, however, each such study is vehemently rejected by the spokes persons of the church. This is a matter that needs to be investigated further, before coming to a clear conclusion.

Does the church use allurements in its evangelical work?

Again it is an empirical question and needs serious investigation. The official answer that emerges from the documents mentioned above is clear enough at least in principle. DMAC states “[t]he Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles. By the same token, she also strongly insists on this right, that no one be frightened away from the Faith by unjust vexations on the part of others.”

However, there is plenty of room to adhere to the letter of this declaration and still use allurements and enticements. The very next paragraph starts making room for such a practice: “the convert’s motives should be looked into, and if necessary, purified”. The promise of good schools, health care and other forms of charity can easily be the motive. But this is impossible to nail.

Those who leave Hinduism do so on their own accord

One reason for the conversion of Dalits and Adivasis to Christianity is rightly claimed to be the low social and economic status of them in the society. Desire to escape indignity and oppression forced on them for thousands of years is good enough reason for any human beings to despise the Hindu structure of society. The people who are spearheading the Hindutva movements, including ghar-vapasi, are mostly from the upper caste. They clearly have deep rooted biases against the so-called lower castes and tribal people. They would like them to remain Hindu but at a lower position of power and social status. Often their proclamations of upliftment of lower castes are extremely patronising and lack sincerity.

All this motivates people to leave he Hindu fold as it is. However, we have to make a moral distinction between someone leaving Hinduism on one’s own accord and others fishing in the troubled waters. Missionaries clearly are fishing in the troubled waters.

If the motives of both the Hindu organisations working in tribal areas and the missionaries are pure service, one wonders why they don’t cooperate. The missionaries have experience and knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years in providing good education and health care. They can offer to train the workers of Hindu organisations in these areas. The Hindu organisations rather than competing with the missionaries can learn from them. Each can come to the agreement for not making any further attempts to conversion and reconversion. But we all know that the motives of both are not as simple, and this mutual good will and cooperation in serving the deprived is not likely to come in foreseeable future.

So let’s realise that the zeal of Christian missionaries is not going to be lessened in the near future. Their methods however will be modified according to the social and political situation on the ground. Overall, the methods are much more humane now than they historically have been. The highly respected St. Francis Xavier describes his own method of preaching Christianity: “Whenever I hear of any act of idolatrous worship, I go to the place with a large band of these children, who very soon load the devil with a greater amount of insult and abuse than he has lately received of honour and worship from their parents, relations, and acquaintance. The children run at the idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.” (The life and letters of St Francis Xavier, pages 152-53)

This man is considered a saint, even by the civilizational standards of his times he seems to be more of an apostle of hate. It seems he has nothing common with what Indians consider saints, for example Kabir, Raidas, Meera, Nanak. But the Catholic Church has realised the mistake in this method of spreading their faith and abandoned this, one hopes.

Impact on Hindu organisations

Recently there are is a lot of writing in the press regarding “attack on Christian community” and by implication ‘Hindu community’. Surprisingly no secular intellectual is asking whether the attacks are on the Christian community of on the churches? Whether the attacks are by Hindu community of by some miscreants in the lunatic fringe? We should understand that if attack on a church is seen as attack on the entire Christian community then the actions of the church also have to be attributed to the entire Christian community. This is a logical point to accurately describe the situation; and not a defence on attacks on the churches. On that I have already expressed my opinion and will have something more to say below.

When the Hindu groups (who are a small minority in Hindus) express concern on the issue of conversions the Indian intellectual “laughs” in unison with Ashish Nandi, who said in a recent interview “the majority community, which is 82% of the country’s population but some of them still feel and behave like a minority. [Laughs]”

I am not sure whether they genuinely fail to get the point of this concern of they have acquired a non-thinking attitude to the problem. The way right wing Hindus articulate the issue (and they might be wrong) is that Hinduism is not a evangelizing religion; for centuries missionaries have been slowly chipping away at it, and have been heaping calumny on it; so they feel like resisting it. Those who think that the missionaries do not heap calumny on Hinduism should read missionary literature of colonial period; and Francis Zavier’s letters; jut to get a test. The Catholic Church, the largest church in India, has stopped hate mongering now; but that is not true of all churches which are active in conversion. Those who find this statement baseless should watch this short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mM2HgTX0Cng . Pastor Ranjit Abraham is telling lies, heaping insult on India, on Indians and on Hindus. He claims to have hundreds of thousands of followers, more than 3500 churches, and 16 Bible colleges. This worry is a response to a long history of this kind of activity.

This is producing more than just a reaction among the Hindu organisations. An early warning of what might be coming can be heard on Mohan Bhagwat’s speech delivered in Delhi on 5th April 15. It is clear they are learning from missionaries and are learning fast. They aspire for wider scope, better organised work and ‘service’ without distinction of religions etc. and also without expecting something in return. In near future they will learn all the tricks of evangelism, will try to turn Hinduism in a evangelising religions. We are in for a battle over souls in India for some time to come. Let me add that this is the worst thing that can happen to Hinduism, it will lose its roots and character.

How should a common Indian citizen respond to this scenario?

 

A constitutional right

Nothing in these intensions of the church is against the constitution. Therefore, it would be much more truthful to say openly that: yes, the church wants to convert. But that is it’s constitutionally guaranteed right. The church neither needs to feel guilty of violating the law of the land nor need to apologise for it, as they are within their constitutional right of propagating their religion. They should simply adhere to their own principle of not using force, allurements or enticements.

The Hindus in general and the fundamentalists among them in particular have to learn that all citizens of India have the right to preach their religion and convert others on the grounds of change of faith. If they think of themselves as good citizens of India they should not attack churches or Christians for this, nor should they malign either the Church of the Christians for this. They have to learn to live with the reality.

The governments—at the centre as well as at the states—are duty bound to protect the liberty of Christens and the Church; and enforce the law and order strictly by punishing the miscreants who indulge in violence against the Church.

From the moral point of view

 

The church’s position of striving to convert everyone can hardly be defended morally in today’s liberal democratic societies. It is a dogmatic position which cannot be defended rationally. All religions try to capture the consciousness of the gullible. Considering the gospel the word of God itself is a huge fraud on humanity; like any other book that claims to be revealed by the God. The known history of Bible and how it was constructed much after the death of Christ makes it a dogma crafted for political purposes. Therefore, conversion can never be an act of ‘rational persuasion’.

From the humanist point of view those who have acquired the power of sophisticated language and thinking should not use these capabilities to indoctrinate the gullible; they should rather take the responsibility of enhancing the level of consciousness and rational thinking of those who happen to be less prepared due to the unjust distribution of opportunities. The church—and all religions—thrive on the use of others unpreparedness and gullibility to enhance their own power. Therefore, the church has to take the responsibility and moral blame of its acts of unjustly influencing others. In spite of being constitutionally within their rights they are moral transgressors in the eyes of rational humanists.

Social cohesion

The church itself is aware that “the convert often experiences an abrupt breaking off of human ties”, but wants to hide behind the fiction of testing “the joy which God gives without measure”. Everyone is aware that all religions have very strong social, cultural, political and economic implications. All religious communities are now aware of these implications. Therefore, each one feels threatened if their members leave and convert to other religious communities. In a democracy an individual has the freedom to choose one’s own belief system. And still a disruption in the social and cultural life cannot be avoided if conversions take place. Violent retaliation to such a disruption is wrong and unconstitutional; but the actions of the church (if it is involved in conversions) cannot be considered as unrelated to such disruption.

When RSS has developed its own machine of conversion in the guise of Rashtirya Seva Bharati the missionaries and RSS/RSB will be standing eye-ball-to-eye-ball with each other. That will create tension.

It seems we all have to learn how to live in peace and harmony, in the given complex reality till we change it. Neither denials nor violent reactions are justified. We have to raise our own consciousness, understand human failings and have to respect each human beings in spite of these failings. Indian democracy is passing through trying times. Its future depends on our collective wisdom, confidence in human intelligence and deep concern for wellbeing of all Indians; actually of all humanity. We all have to refrain from imposing our own dogmas on others—be they religious, political, or atheist. And in spite of non-imposition we have to keep the care for others intact and rational dialogue open with all our opponents. The much derided secularists I am sure can do this; but can the Church and the RSS/parivar do it too?

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[i] http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

[ii] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_06111999_ecclesia-in-asia.html

[iii] http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html