Updated: September 02, 2014 09:53 PM GMT
Children play in front of the empty church in Asroi
A group of former Christians from Uttar Pradesh state who converted to Hinduism last week have denied that they were pressured by Hindu radicals.
Instead they blamed neglect by their church, the Seventh Day Adventists, for their decision to convert.
“It is entirely our decision,” 30-year-old convert Ram Pal told ucanews.com on Tuesday. “We are disappointed by the church and its long list of promises which it never fulfilled.”
Pal and the other 59 converts belong to the Valmiki community, a low caste Hindu group, once considered untouchables.
They live in a community of just eight houses on the outskirts of Asroi village in the state's Aligarh district.
They became members of the Seventh Day Adventists in 1995 in the hope that this would change their social status.
According to Pal, it proved to be a false hope.
They continue to be denied social dealings with other villagers, and are employed in menial work such as cleaning the houses and toilets of high caste Hindu families.
The group returned to the Hindu fold last week, with a purification ceremony performed within the church, which was built in 2004.
The “mass conversion” made international headlines, with some reports projecting it as a case of forced conversion.
But the villagers tell a different story.
Convert Rajbir Singh said the Christian missioners in 1995 promised them better social status, jobs, education for their children and free medical facilities if they became Christians.
“We changed religion, but nothing else changed,” he told ucanews.com.
Not only were they still considered to be low caste, “we became ineligible for the special governmental benefits meant for low caste Hindus”, Singh said.
The Indian constitution guarantees a reservation of government jobs and places in educational institutions for underprivileged classes, but Christians and Muslims are denied such benefits.
Pal said that despite becoming Christians, they had been following Hindu traditions in their homes for quite some time.
“Our elders had a meeting and decided that the community would go back to the Hindu religion. We are at home now,” he said.
Reports that Hindu activists had stripped the one-room church of Christian icons were also false, according to Seventh Day Adventist pastor Habil Gyan.
Gyan told ucanews.com that the church had never contained a statue of Jesus Christ or a cross.
Until Sunday, police personnel were deployed around the church, as church officials alleged that the conversions had been motivated by fear of Hindu fundamentalists.
But local police chief Jitendra Gautam described the police presence as a “precautionary measure” and told ucanews.com that it had since been withdrawn without incident.
Gyan said the church used to host Sunday Mass regularly and that people used to come and pray.
He admitted however that there had been a lack of pastoral care to the Christians in the village.
“The local pastor was not able to communicate properly the Good Word to these people,” he said. “He was not able to connect with them.”
Gyan added that the conversions did not take place in one day.
“Deliberations had been going on for at least three months,” he said.