Wherever the 14th Dalai Lama is, China somehow manages to creep in. Even in religious discourses.
"People should have faith in their own religion, whether they are in Korea, China, Japan or anywhere else," he told a gathering of some 10,000 Buddhist lamas and devotees at an expansive ground adjoining the Yid-Gha-Choezin Gompa here on Monday.
This was virtually the opening line of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader's first session of his three-day discourse. His teaching in Tibetan was translated in Hindi for the consumption of local tribal people in Tawang district adjoining China's Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The message, local lamas said, could very well have been a call to dissuade people from converting.
At least five small churches have come up in this town since 2002, two of them - Christian Revival Church (CRC) and Town Baptist Church - barely a kilometer from the Tawang Monastery. At Dirang, 120 km to the south in adjoining West Kameng district, the erection of a CRC church had led to complications in August last year. Another at Jang nearby also had to be uprooted following alleged local pressure.
The Monpa and Sherdukpen tribes inhabiting Tawang and West Kameng districts are Buddhists. Minus these two districts, over 40 per cent of people in Arunachal Pradesh have turned Christians over the last 20 years, claim the Catholic and various denominations of Protestant churches.
Buddhism is so strong in Tawang that government buildings either sport a statue of Buddha or Buddhist flags and motifs. Even the army's memorial dedicated to the martyrs of the 1962 Sino-Indian War is designed like a chhorten capped by an image of Buddha. Buddhist rituals also went into the inauguration of an OPD of Tawang District Hospital by the Dalai Lama prior to the religious discourse on Monday. The Dalai Lama partly funded this OPD.
According to Moti Ranpal, pastor of CRC Tawang, at least 30 Monpas have ceased to be Buddhists. "We did not ask them to; they accepted Christianity out of their own will. Pressure from local organizations, though, dissuade them coming out in the open. We have also been stoned out of places such as Lumla," he said.
Alleged animosity from Buddhist groups has also forced denominations such as Trumpet, Brothers and Believers, Hope Sharing Church and Fellowship with God to work from within private homes. A missionary school - Mt Ghasala English School - run by Baptist Kenny Kent from Nagaland is also reportedly victimized.
"The first Monpa Christian, Tashi Phuntso, has had to go to Assam to escape persecution," said a Baptist Church member. Phuntso is now an evangelist operating from a Fellowship with God church at Charduar in adjoining Assam.
Monks at Tawang Monastery refused to talk on the issue while local authorities denied religious persecution. "If this was so, churches would not have come up here," said an officer of the district administration, refusing to be quoted.
Earlier in the day, the Dalai Lama blessed over 1500 saplings for distribution to the locals as an exercise in initiating them for a save-Himalayan ecology campaign. "We chose three species of indigenous, high-altitude trees - blue pine (local name Sukpa), oak (Changba) and fir (froh) - for planting on barren patches around this town," said forest officer Abhijit Rajkhowa.