Mumbai (AsiaNews) Some 300 Tribal Christians were reconverted to Hinduism in a public ceremony that ended with the receiving gifts such as food and new clothing. The event took place on Sunday October 17 in Orissa's Sindurgh district (northern India), this according to Mgr Alphonse Bilung, Bishop of Rourkela (Orissa). He spoke to AsiaNews about the reconversions.
"Although the media reported that 80 families were reconverted to Hinduism, the truth of the matter is that 336 people went back to Hinduism as a result of force and promises," Bishop Bilung said. "Fundamentalist groups are telling lies and inflating the numbers of reconversions in order to scare the Tribals. This way they can boast about the success of their drives."
The Bishop contacted to the priest in whose parish the reconversions are said to have occurred. He was told that on Sunday afternoon a large number of Hindus gathered at a place some five kilometres from the Church. Tribals from three different villages from over 100 km away were driven in jeeps and lorries to the place where the reconversion ceremony took place.
According to him, fundamentalists groups are very active in Orissa and make life difficult for Christian Tribals who are often threatened if they attend Church services. Because they live among Hindus and rely largely on the Hindu majority for employment, these Christians find it very hard to live. This is especially true in Rourkela's iron ore sector.
According to Bishop Bilung, a recent rally by Charismatic Christians in the Rourkela area is the likely reason for the recent reconversions. Tribals and many Hindus including many Hindu women and their children took part in the event hoping that their illness could be cured. This provoked the fundamentalists' wrath because "they think", Bishop Bilung said, "that rallies such as this are conversion drives".
In Orissa, the state assembly passed a law the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act that bans forced conversions. It has been used to threaten the largely illiterate Tribals who can more easily be manipulated by Hindu fundamentalists.
Bishop Bilung pointed out that in his diocese, "the Church is involved in social welfare and empowerment programmes and runs many dispensaries that offer Tribals medical assistance. In addition, the Church regularly conducts medical camps in the remotest areas of the diocese and manages 200 schools open to children of all castes and communities".
Although defeated in the May Union elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still in power in Orissa. Powerful, anti-minority, right wing fundamentalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the BJP's religious wing, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are very active in the state.
Because of their missionary activities, Christian missioners have been frequent targets of persecution and the aforementioned state law makes it easier to harass them. However, Bishop Bilung said, "I wonder if these right-wing fundamentalists had the permission of the collector of Rourkela to reconvert the Tribals since the law applies to them as well."
Last September, 76 Tribal Christians 're-embraced' Hinduism in the village of Sarat, Mayurbhanj district, in a VHP organised ceremony. The whole event was described as "a return home for the tribal people".
Mass conversions are not a new phenomenon in Orissa, one of the Indian states with the strongest presence of Hindu fundamentalists.