Don't corner a community
The Christian community is hurt by the nearly 400 attacks on its members, Bibles and churches in the last four years.These are as fresh in memory as the physical wounds inflicted on Sister Leela in Ujjain and on Father Oscar Mendonca in Thane two weeks ago, or what happened to Graham Staines and his two little sons in Orissa.
What the peace-loving Christian community desperately needed from the powers-that-be was solace. What it actually got was more battering from the prime minister of a secular, democratic republic. He said, "Some Christians are converting in the name of service, which is not proper..." "When RSS workers are killed, the media do not report it, but when Christians are attacked, they immediately do. This should be corrected."
The grassroots workers must have, undoubtedly, been re-energised and will work harder for the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh elections. That the still fresh wounds of the Christian community would begin to bleed again is nobody's concern. No statement has been made by the government about the renewed attacks on Christians. That is just as well, or the media would be reporting about some foreign hand theory and a clean chit would be waiting in the wings as awards to the perpetrators of violence.
This is not the first time that the Christian community is jolted and pained by the statements of the prime minister. Soon after his return from the Dangs district of Gujarat in January 1999, where dozens of churches were burnt, he had given a call for a national debate on conversion though he later retracted, saying that what he meant was a dialogue and not debate.
The recent statement on conversion by Atal Bihari Vajpayee created a little noise in Parliament but the media took the aberration pointed out by him to heart and chose to remain relatively silent. Or may be, the media are still puzzled as to why Vajpayee made such a remark in the first place.
In all fairness to the prime minister, he did mention the Christians' constitutional right to preach and that many Christians are doing laudable work. In the face of attacks, including ideological, on Christians, he he could have, for the benefit of the lunatic fringe, certainly elaborated a little more on the 'laudable' work.
For instance, Christians run nearly 17,000 schools and colleges in the country and if today Indians are preferred to most other Asians for jobs abroad, it is thanks to the phenomenal education opportunities provided by the missionaries. That those Indians earning millions abroad have not converted to Christianity has not interested the prime minister. Arun Shourie, though, might counter it by saying that since the missionaries cannot match the intellectual acumen of the educated elite, they finally fail to convert them!
Perhaps, the prime minister could also have mentioned that, though he has heard rumours about conversions by 'allurement' and 'fraudulent means', the demographic profile of Christians by no means confirms the allegations. The Christians, despite being here for 2,000 years, number just about 2.34 per cent. In fact, their number has been consistently coming down. Four decades ago they numbered 2.8 per cent. If the allegations of mass conversions by fraudulent means were correct, logically their numbers should have crossed at least the 5 per cent mark by now.
The prime minister knows better than anybody else that about 250 million people in India are malnourished and about 40 per cent of this population live below the poverty line. Could he not have convincingly argued that this large chunk of the poor have not been exploited by the missionaries?
A private member's bill to ban conversions is in Parliament and would get support from the ruling party. The Sangh parivar has been demanding a ban on conversions, though they have themselves been indulging in forceful re-conversions of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, with no one raising any hue and cry over it. Those who allege that missionaries were converting the poor on the strength of their money are now reportedly receiving huge amounts from NRIs committed to the cause of Hindutva. Metanoia is the Greek word the Bible uses for conversion, which is neither about changing one's religion nor nationality. It simply means turning away from evil ways to good or changing one's evil pattern of life. Those who allege that Christians are resorting to forced conversions fail to grasp what Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi has been saying - converting someone is a contradiction in terms. It is only god who can touch someone's heart to accept a certain faith. We only share the good news we have received.
V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Supreme Court judge, shares what Christians believe: "It is because of the spiritual revolution that is produced in the minds of the people by the mission of Christ that they serve the needy and the poor." Mother Teresa was just one example of such service which attracted many; and some came forward to embrace Christianity.
The issue is not conversion. It is how the missionaries are restoring dignity to the oppressed. And it is the demand of such a society for equality that is the crux of the matter.