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In the name of the Church

World's biggest religion is going through a flux, be it in India or the post-9/11 West, reports Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2006 01:40 IST

A Shipwreck in the Bay of Bengal on January 18, 1837 made some members of the Welsh Methodist Mission travel to the Khasi Hills. Some 170 years later, the Presbyterian — Baptist as well — boat in the Northeast is being rocked by cultism and ‘reverse conversion’, primarily to Judaism, in Mizoram and Manipur. Elsewhere in the region, Christianity is being blamed for destroying indigenous cultures. But these are “just aberrations” for the church that is seemingly stronger than ever in the region.

The Christian Northeast of today is divided almost equally between the Cath-olics and Baptists, while the Presbyterians hold sway over lesser territory. Together, they cater to some 26 lakh Christians, over 12,44,500 of them being Catholics.

The Catholic, Baptist or Presbyterian set-ups are as baffling as they are methodical. Each hospital, dispensary, school, hostel, orphanage and old-age home is accounted for. But church leaders are evasive about the kind of annual budget they have, though government agencies claim missionaries ride on at least Rs 200 crore a year to pursue their religious goal in the Northeast. “It is very difficult to cite a figure as our budgets are project-driven, and we ensure that everything is cost-effective,” says Thomas Menamperampil, archbishop of the Guwahati Archdiocese. He scotches theories that the church receives funds from foreign agencies that are a security threat to India. “The Ministry of Home Affairs has knowledge of every cent that comes in. Besides, most members of the church in the Northeast donate up to 10 per cent of their annual income, and that is very difficult to quantify.”

But in spite of suspicions over its funding pattern — intelligence agencies often accuse the church of channelising money to various militant organisations — few can dispute that the church has gone where the government has not. Take the case of Minthong in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh. The place inhabited by Wancho tribe had no road when the Dibrugarh Diocese (in Assam) set up a dispensary and a nursery school there 10 years ago. “The nearest police station and government health centre is at Longding, 18 km away across a treacherous terrain,” says Bishop Joseph. The scenario is no different at Parkijuli on the Indo-Bhutan border, where a Don Bosco school caters to primarily Bhutanese students.

Skeptics like Dayal Krishna Bora of Lok Jagaran Manch maintain that social service by the church is coated with the conversion motive. They cite the example of Karigaon in Assam’s Kokrajhar district, where nine Hindu Bodo tribal families were allegedly coaxed and bribed into converting to Christianity two months ago.

The church is also under attack from tribal societies going through “serious introspection”. This is evident from the fact that Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio had, a few years back, said that the followers of indigenous faith were the original Nagas. He also urged the church leaders not to convert the few remaining followers of indigenous faith because “if every Naga is converted to Christianity, the faith, culture and identity of Naga society will be lost forever.” Many in Nagaland deem it unfortunate that the “church has been very critical of indigenous Naga faith and culture, dubbing our forefathers as wild, savage, naked, cannibal, heathen and pagan.” That is indeed ironical for a state where militants used the ‘Nagaland for Christ’ slogan to justify secessionism.

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First Published: Dec 24, 2006 01:40 IST