NEW DELHI — If you thought that Christian missionaries facing serious allegations of committing themselves to conversion of handful of poor Muslims in Kashmir wasn’t enough then read on; evangelism has begun to tread on the Sikh faith in neighbouring Punjab as well.
This could probably be the first time that Punjabi society is being overwhelmed with this new wave of assertive Christianity. Sikhs were considered to have been ‘off-limits’ by the missionary machine in Punjab, but not anymore.
With this the issue of religious conversion is all set to flare up once again with political parties asking for a debate in the Parliament. Sikhs in Punjab and Muslims in Kashmir are the new entrants in the list of Christian missionaries meant for religious conversion, says a government report.
If government figures are to be believed then about 800,000 people from various religions are being converted to Christianity every year across India. While in parts of Uri sector in Kashmir there are reports of New Testament being distributed to the villagers in Urdu, Choir boys in Punjab’s churches now wear turbans in an attempt to minimise the variation between Sikhism and Christianity, states a home ministry report.
Though the report says it is a routine exercise to ascertain the rate of religious conversion taking place in India, top officials believe that during recent times there has been a noticeable trend where various Christian missionaries are allegedly intruding in Punjab and Kashmir.
“It could be because Christian population in Punjab and Kashmir is significantly less in comparison to the rest of India. In Punjab it is less than one per cent, while in Kashmir it is about 1.5 per cent,” officials said.
So strong are the views that missionaries are facing strong resistance from the local communities. Sikh organisations have often complained that missionaries are using extortive practices such as bribing them with material possessions to change their religion. Like in Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and northeast — where cases of mass conversion forced the government authorities to look upon the issues of economically disadvantaged and illiterate population opting for other religion — in Punjab and Kashmir the situation is somewhat different.
Said former secretary of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee Gurbachan Singh Bachan: “People who are converting from Hinduism and Sikhism to Christianity are those who have lost understanding of their own faith.”
“Khalsa (Sikh) institutions and the government need to educate the people about the values of a religion and tell them that all religions are equal and no religion teach to fight with each other,” he says. Sikh’s top religious administrative body SGPC President Avtar Singh Makkar too is of the same view.
He says: “The issue of religious conversion practiced by certain missionary organisations in Punjab is of a very serious nature. We are taking up the matter with the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.” In most of the cases, says Makkar, such provocative evangelism does not go unnoticed.
The ‘Open Door Church’ run by Pastor Harbhajan Singh, a landlord who allegedly converted some 2,800 members of the Khojewala village community to Christianity, is in the government list for carrying out his operations.
However, the Christian missionaries have denied the charges saying they have nothing to comment upon those who are willingly choosing to become Christians. A Jesuit organisation from Bible Society of India faced confrontation with the local community in quake-hit Uri in Kashmir.
There have been reports of complaints from locals that the missionary was luring people to Christianity by offering them financial assistance. The missionary had been on the visit in quake affected areas of Kashmir distributing food, water, audio cassettes and a copy of the New Testament in Urdu to the villages.