10/06/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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Uttar Pradesh: over 350 Indians of all castes convert to Christianity

by Prakash Dubey

One of them told AsiaNews the decision was freely taken; no force was used. Hindu nationalists are shocked and determined to bring back the new converts to "the true faith". Local Catholics are worried because they fear exacerbation of interfaith conflict.

Gorakhpur (AsiaNews) – Around 350 Hindus coming from all social castes converted to Christianity on 3 October because this faith "brought values of human equality and love missing in Hinduism". The decision has sparked the fury of Hindu extremists, who are now planning to "bring them back to the true faith".

The converts come from half a dozen villages in Jaunpur district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The Christian pastors at work in the region belong to the Pentecostal church. According to Pitamber Masihi, one of the new converts, the Christians "brought values of human equality, love and fraternity missing in Hinduism, which perpetuates low-high caste dichotomy and promotes many superstitions and social vices."

Masihi told AsiaNews the pastors " did not use any type of economic bait or brainwashing to woo us to Christianity. The main reason for our conversion was that we saw them teaching love for one's enemy and that caste discrimination is useless, to be replaced by a culture of human solidarity."

The conversion and baptism were conducted by Pastor Rajendra Chauhan. "Everything has been done with our unflinching consent. We are spiritually enlightened and ennobled to become the disciples of Lord Jesus," added Masihi.

However, the ceremony has drawn the wrath of Hindu nationalist groups like the

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – paramilitary formation of Hindu extremists), which have often responded to events of the kind with "re-conversion to Hindu purity" ceremonies. Such events are conducted as part of a clear strategy that aims to whittle the number of Christians in the state down to the minimum.

Father Francis, a local Catholic priest, said: "For extremists, the real shock was that some of the converts came from upper castes. They tend to accuse Christians of exploiting the poverty and backwardness of Dalits to convert them, perhaps giving them money, but they cannot say anything about this."

However, the priest was quick to point out that the Catholic Church "does not believe in these mass ceremonies. We undertake dozens of health and educational projects and we believe the most important conversion for the masses is that their poverty is transformed into prosperity, their ignorance into cultured knowledge. Such mass ceremonies could actually fuel social confrontation that Christ would not appreciate."

Anyhow, news of this mass conversion has spread across the state, drawing different reactions. Srikant Shukla, a local pro-Hindu leader, told AsiaNews: "I don't believe they converted out of their own free will. It is evidently an act of forced conversion by Christian missionaries who are exploiting the innocence of rural people. We have reported the matter to the police and will take all possible measures to abort the Christian anti-Hindu conspiracy."

Shukla continued: "Various Hindu organizations will meet on October 8 to ponder over the Christian conspiracy and to chalk out strategies to thwart it. We must bring back the new converts to Hinduism, because we are sure they did not embrace Christianity willingly."

Fr Francis said this umpteenth mass conversion "will only increase tension in the region and this could jeopardise the security of the few Catholics here, who have nothing to do with the affair. Most people don't distinguish between the Catholic Church and Christian denominations."

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