Leaders of a right-wing Hindu group speak to villagers as a part of an anti-Christian campaign in the villages of Jhabua district in central India's Madhya Pradesh state. (Photo supplied)
Right-wing Hindu groups have stepped up their anti-Christian campaign in central India, urging villagers to disassociate themselves from Christians and asking Christians to switch to Hinduism to avoid hostility.
However, indigenous Christians in Madhya Pradesh state have vowed not to give up their faith under pressure and are prepared to face challenges to safeguard their faith.
Christian practices are against tribal traditions, Hindu leader Kamalesh Malviya told a meeting of the village council in Amba village in tribal-dominated Jhabua district.
"There is no space for religious conversion and healing prayers among the indigenous people, and those who have converted to Christianity should be opposed," he told a small crowd of village elders at the Jan. 26 meeting.
Hindu groups are campaigning across Jhabua district for Christians to return to Hinduism, which they say is the parental religion of all Indians.
The campaign and threats are "part of their attempt to create division and discord among the peacefully living tribal community," said Jeevan Ganawa, a local Christian leader.
Jhabua has a high percentage of Christians, who form some 4 percent of the district's 1 million people. Hindus comprise 93 percent and Muslims about 2 percent.
In the rest of Madhya Pradesh, Christians account for less than 1 percent of the population, while the national average is only 2.3 percent.
The numerical growth of Christians, mostly among tribal people, challenges the radicals' idea of Hindu hegemony, said Ganawa, a second-generation tribal Christian leader.
"We have been practicing our faith amid threats and persecution," he said.
However, "we are not going to give up our religion as per the whims and fancies of right-wing Hindu groups," Ganawa said, questioning Malviya's call to tribal people to join "their parental religion."
"Tribal people were never Hindus. We have nothing to do with Hinduism. Hindu groups have infiltrated tribal people and branded them as followers of the Hindu religion," he said.
Tribal people are nature worshippers, animists and followers of their own religions and practices.
Anand Khadiya, another tribal Christian leader, said most tribal people are counted as Hindus in India's national census. Hindu leaders now want to divide the tribal community into Christian and non-Christian for political advantage.
On Jan. 11, a mob of Hindus marched in Jhabua city demanding to shut down all the churches in tribal areas. They also handed over a memorandum to the district collector, the top official, to shut down churches within 30 days or face violent agitation "to free the tribal lands" from Christians.
The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) runs the government in Madhya Pradesh and supports turning India into a Hindu theocratic state. The BJP also leads the coalition that runs the federal government.
Christian leaders suspect the anti-Christian campaign has the tacit support of the government.
However, the demand to shut down churches is baffling, one church leader said. "If the churches cannot be allowed on tribal land, how can there be temples?" he asked, refusing to be named.
"The Hindu group have built temples and installed their deities in tribal villages. These are also against tribal traditions and beliefs. They should also be removed, and Christians should not be targeted alone," said another Christian leader.
Father Rockey Shah, public relations officer of Jhabua Diocese, said the Hindu campaign also targets Christians' educational and healthcare facilities, which have contributed immensely to indigenous people's welfare.
"Now the Hindu groups say these services are facades for religious conversion," he told UCA News on Jan. 28.
Father Shah said church leaders are keeping a watch on the open threats.
Hindu right-wing groups target Christians and Muslims, terming them as foreign religions. However, they do not have hostility towards the Sikh, Jain and Buddhist religions developed in India.
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