Christians in India Respond to Charges of Evangelistic "Conspiracy"

Friday, March 5, 2004

Government announces plan to regulate foreign contributions.

by Vishal Arora

DELHI, March 5 (Compass) -- Christian leaders in India have released a joint statement in response to allegations made by the weekly newspaper Tehelka against the Christian community. In its inaugural issue on January 30 and a second issue on February 8, Tehelka claimed Christians were carrying out “the conversion agenda of U.S. President George Bush,” and using the HIV/AIDS problem as “an opportunity for evangelism.”

Following publication of the Tehelka articles, the Indian government pushed forward plans to amend the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) of 1976, which restricts foreign contributions to Christian relief agencies.

Two journalists assumed Christian identities in their research for the Tehelka articles, interviewing Christian leaders across the country about their strategies for evangelism. Those leaders now say their comments were taken out of context and used to support the conspiracy theory.

“The report seeks to divide the unity of the church in India,” Rev. Richard Howell, General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), told Compass. “But they cannot divide the church, as all major Christian denominations in India stand united against the Tehelka reports.

“The whole Christian community stands for religious freedom as promised in the Indian Constitution, which gives all communities the right to share their faith with others and provides to all individuals the right to accept a faith of one’s choice.

“The Tehelka report is part of a bigger agenda, which is to reduce, minimize, and even bring to a halt Christian presence in society,” Howell said.

The EFI represents 70 percent of the evangelical community of India. EFI recently joined with the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), representing Orthodox and Protestant Christians, and the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) to issue a joint response to the Tehelka articles under the banner of the United Christian Forum (UCF).

Father Philip Kuruvilla is the executive secretary of the India Watch Desk of the NCCI. “The NCCI, together with the CBCI and the EFI, strongly decries the Tehelka reports that suggested the ‘evangelical zeal’ shown by one denomination is anathema to another,” he told Compass. “The mandate of our Lord Jesus is one that unites all Christians.”

Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of CBCI, believes Tehelka has a clear agenda to fuel violence against Christians. “By picking on a community that has been reeling under the vicious hate campaign engineered and executed by the Sangh Parivar [Hindu fundamentalist groups], Tehelka has only added fuel to the fire,” he said. “This is bound to create more ripples in society as the ‘facts’ illustrated by Tehelka will be exploited by unscrupulous elements.”

In their joint statement, the UCF urged citizens to vote for candidates who supported communal harmony and religious freedom. “Our nation … provides to all its citizens the fundamental rights stipulated in the constitution. … The representatives we elect must be able to redirect the path of our nation to strengthen democracy.”

Meanwhile the Union Home and Law Ministries of India are pushing for changes to an existing law that governs the contribution of funds from abroad. If the law is approved by Parliament, the 1976 Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) will be renamed as the Foreign Contribution Management Act (FCMA), giving state administrators greater power to restrict the amount of foreign aid coming into the country.

According to a report in the Indian Express on March 1, “Around 25,000 organizations ‘loosely defined’ as non-governmental organizations [NGO’s] receive $1 billion annually, out of which 60 percent goes to religious, mostly Christian, organizations.”

Under the proposed Act, applicants for foreign funds will need clearance from district magistrates. Clearance for “sensitive” categories of NGO’s will be given by FCRA administrators in New Delhi.

The FCRA was first amended in 2000, requiring minority religious organizations to report to district administrators about the source of their funds and the nature of their work. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government proposed to add NGO’s to the list of regulated organizations.

However, no further action was taken on this proposal until the Tehelka articles were published.