THE QUESTION OF EVANGELISM IN INDIA
Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.
Co-Founder/Managing Director, Hindu American Foundation
The Joshua Project lists the percentage of unreached in India as 93.3% -- that's
basically every Indian Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist.
"Conversion, murder and India's Supreme Court" by Mathew Schmalz, Professor of
Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, was featured on Washington Post's On
Faith a few days ago. I take this opportunity to respond to two questions he posed,
namely, "Is conversion wrong?" and "Is anger over conversion an extenuating
circumstance for murder?"
I'll respond to the second question first, as the answer is simple. No -- anger over
conversion is not an extenuating circumstance for murder. Violence of the kind inflicted
on Graham Staines and his two young sons is wholly unacceptable, and against
teachings of the Hindu religion, India's legacy of peaceful intra and inter-religious
coexistence, and the law. Many, including the Hindu American Foundation, though, see
the specific comments by the Indian Supreme Court now modified, not as a basis for
justifying extenuating circumstances, but rather an expression of the growing concern
over foreign missionaries and their impact on India's hallmark pluralistic ethos. This
takes us back to the first question: "Is conversion wrong?"
The answer, as one might expect, is complicated. Professor Schmalz states that many
Indian Protestant and Catholic denominations "eschew overt conversion efforts," but the
reason he cites as to why -- that of "political repercussions" -- short-changes the
overriding influence Hinduism's pluralistic worldview has had not only on Christianity,
but other religions in India. India has long been a beacon of religious pluralism. The
sage Hindu observation -- Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti (The Truth is one, the
wise call It by many names) -- has fostered an environment in which an unprecedented
diversity of traditions and religions have, for the large part, peacefully co-existed for
millennia. Like America, India's shores accepted and sheltered the religiously
persecuted -- from Jews arriving 2500 years ago, to early Christians bringing the
message of Christ, not to Hindus, but to their brethren, the Cochin Jews. Later came the
Parsis from Iran. Others came not to escape but on their own free will -- Arab Muslims
to trade, and others from far away lands seeking India's spirituality. Each one of these
newcomers sought to live and let live, mixing in, as the legend goes, like sugar in milk.
But since the 12th century, starting with the Islamic invasions and colonizing European
missionaries to today, India faces a different kind of religious visitor -- one that seeks
not to sweeten the milk, but curdle it.
Exhibit A -- the evangelical Joshua Project -- is just one example of what India, at the
heart of the 10-40 Window, is facing. The Joshua Project is an information powerhouse
-- detailing logistical information about people groups around the world, and providing
ideas to Evangelicals committed to mass church-planting, and in turn conversions,
among every ethnic group. The data is meticulous and well-researched, and both
shocking and disturbing.
The Joshua Project lists the percentage of unreached in India as 93.3% -- that's
basically every Indian Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist. Last-name, clan, caste,
or tribe-based communities are catalogued according to location, religious affiliation,
language, and population -- the data collection puts the postal systems of most
developed nations to shame. Technical acronyms such as CPI, or Church Planting
Indicator, with a ranking system of 0 to 5, measure the progress of church growth based
on churches established and number of "believers" regularly attending. Then there's the
progress scale which allows the "Saved" to track, well ... "progress" of the "Harvest" --
red indicating less than 2% Evangelical and less than 5% Christian, yellow indicating
less than 2% Evangelical but greater than 5% Christian, and green indicating from 2%
to greater than 5% Evangelical. And of course, what worldwide project of this scale and
in this century would be complete without an iPhone App?
The response by a few states in India to campaigns inspired by projects like Joshua,
and what can be characterized as nothing less than primarily American and European
faith-based ops intended to alter Indian religious demographics, has been what most
outside of India refer to as "anti-conversion" laws. Interestingly, many of these same
states, as well as Indian states with rising inter-religious tension, when cross-checked
with the Joshua Project's "progress" scale, are states that show increasing green and
yellow. Some may ask, what's the big deal? Doesn't the 2001 Indian census indicate
only 2.3% of the population as Christian? Yes, but these percentages have come under
question given the fact that a large number of converts retain their Hindu names and
claim Hindu status for a variety of reasons. The data from Joshua Project, which doesn't
account for non-Evangelical efforts, also suggests rapid growth.
Contrary to what "anti-conversion" laws may imply by their title, they do not outlaw the
right of any individual to convert based upon genuine faith, belief, study, or religious
experience. They also don't restrict Christians who provide social services in various
parts of India with no ulterior conversion motive. Most anti-conversion laws seek only to
address conversions "by force, allurement, or fraudulent means." They are the effort of
sovereign states to regulate those, mostly Christian aid groups, for which the provision
of aid to these vulnerable communities is not altruistic, but rather part of a soul-saving
numbers game. While such motives have proven difficult to document, media reports
following the 2004 Asian Tsunami revealed incidents where missionaries actually
packed up and left when the residents of some tsunami-shattered villages in India
refused to convert as a precondition for receiving material aid.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and other
human rights groups have long decried these laws against fraudulent conversion that
have emerged throughout the 10-40 Window, or as is more affectionately referred to by
some missionaries, "The Resistance Belt." Human rights violation or denial of religious
freedom are the frequently recited mantras in these "watch-dog" circles. But as
adherents and advocates of a non-proselytizing, non-exclusivist, pluralistic tradition, we
at the Hindu American Foundation have always asked -- the religious freedom of
whom? The freedom of foreign missionaries to proselytize and prey upon vulnerable,
generally poor people to convert them to a myopic religious worldview that denigrates or
denies the legitimacy of all other traditions, or that of adherents of mostly non-exclusivist
and pluralistic traditions, to be treated medically, educated, or employed without having
to sell their souls?
Religious freedom, according to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, incorporates, "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right
includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in
community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in
teaching, practice, worship and observance." This concept of religious freedom has
unfortunately failed to address, at the expense of adherents of pluralist and non-
exclusivist religious traditions such as Hinduism and other Dharmic traditions, the right
to retain one's tradition and to be free from intrusion, harassment, intimidation, and
aggressive, exploitative, and predatory proselytization by non-pluralist and exclusivist
The world community has for too long turned a blind eye to aggressive and predatory
proselytization and resulting conversions that have been carried out for centuries in
Asia, Africa, North and South America, the Middle East and Europe. This collective
complacency is counter-productive to peace and has bred a resurgence in international
campaigns which harass, intimidate, and exploit the most vulnerable segments of
society by, among other ethically questionable methods, conditioning humanitarian aid
or economic, educational, medical or social assistance upon conversion; overtly
denigrating other religions to seek converts; and intentionally promoting religious hatred,
bigotry (hate speech), and violence. Conversions gained through such means must be
recognized for what they are -- unethical, fraudulent, forced, coerced, or provoked.
Professor Schmalz says that the concerns about conversion are unfounded. But we
need only look to the annual statistics of just one missionary organization and recognize
that there is a multiplicative effect.
Exhibit B -- Houston-based Central India Christian Mission. In 2010 alone, its
evangelical missionaries proselytized to over 320,000 people and converted more than
19,600 inhabitants -- that's enough people to fill a basketball arena -- in central India.
This is only one of countless U.S. based Christian organizations engaged in aggressive
and predatory "soul harvesting" campaigns. Consider the plethora of Catholic and
Protestant organizations that are actively pursuing the monopolistic path of religious
exclusivity, and the numbers, and more importantly, the impact, are beyond mind-
Exhibit C -- eye-opening information from India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act
which collects data on incoming foreign aid. In 2007, the top two non-governmental
donors to India were U.S.-based missionary organizations, World Vision International at
~$155 million and Gospel for Asia ~$99.5 million -- together that's $255 million into India
in just one year. Overall, an astonishing 18,996 organizations in India, a
disproportionate number linked to Christian missionaries, received donations totaling
$2.4 billion in 2007 alone. And the inflow has been growing rapidly. 2007 showed
contributions more than double of 2002. With these numbers, how can we say the
concerns are unfounded?
At the end of the day, numbers and statistics, though illustrative, fail to address the very
real human factor on the losing side of the proselytization and conversion equation.
Conversion, when born from genuine faith, belief, study, or religious experience, can be
beautiful. But, conversion begot by aggressive or predatory proselytization is a form of
violence. As one of the co-founders of HAF, Aseem Shukla, eloquently stated, "The
violence of conversion is very real. The religious conversion is too often a conversion to
intolerance. A convert is asked to repudiate his sangha (community), reject the customs
and traditions of his family passed down for generations, and refuse to attend religious
ceremonies that are the very basis of daily life in much of the world. A person's
conversion begins a cascade of upheaval that tears apart families, communities and
societies creating a political and demographic tinderbox that too often explodes."
Got milk? India does and she'd like to keep it sweet.
Stop Christian Conversion in India - Superb Argument exposing
Christianity by Sam Harris