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Indian state's plan to fund Christian pastors sparks row

Pro-Hindu BJP opposes Andhra Pradesh chief minister's move to provide a monthly allowance

Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad

Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad

Updated: September 12, 2019 04:40 AM GMT
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Indian state's plan to fund Christian pastors sparks row

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, a member of the Church of South India, holds a video conference with district officials to review a program at the secretariat in Amaravati on Aug. 13. (IANS photo)

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Hindu groups have opposed a move by the chief minister of India’s Andhra Pradesh state to implement his election promise of paying a US$70 monthly honorarium to Christian pastors.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the southern state began its resistance after the state government on Aug. 27 asked district officials to count the number of pastors in their areas.

The honorarium plan was among poll promises of Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, a Christian, whose Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party swept to power in April’s state elections.

His party’s name is linked to his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who was a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress (INC) party, a Christian and a patron for Christian communities in Andhra Pradesh.

After Reddy senior died in a helicopter crash in 2009, his son broke away from the INC to form his own party.

Jagan Reddy, 46, a member of the Church of South India, has been open about his support for Christians. He has also promised about US$200 as a monthly honorarium to imams and muezzins in the state as a way of protecting religious minorities.

The BJP has strongly opposed the honorarium move and pledged legal action to block it.

“Aiding religious Christian preachers is not the job of the government,” BJP state spokesman Raghunad Babu told ucanews.com on Sept. 10. “Christians have a lot of churches and properties in the state and income from them. Why should the government support them from taxpayers’ money?”

Babu called it “discrimination based on religion” as such allowances are not paid to Hindu priests. “The BJP will take the legal course to oppose this move,” he said.

Hiding Christian identity 

Government data show that there were 1.17 million Christians in Andhra Pradesh before the state was divided in 2014 into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Most Christians reside in Andhra Pradesh, especially along its coast. The Christian percentage fell in 2011 to 1.34 percent from 4.39 percent in 1971.

Researchers say the number of Christians in the state, which had witnessed a steady growth until 1971, fell later, primarily because many Christians, mostly from lower castes, began to identify themselves as Hindus to become eligible for government benefits.

India’s constitution allows benefits, such as monetary help for education and quotas for schools and jobs, but these are denied to Christians on grounds that Christianity has no caste system.

Persecution is another factor for hiding Christian identity. The All India Christian Council in 2013 ranked Andhra Pradesh as the state with India’s highest rate of anti-Christian incidents.

Christian groups believe state support is crucial for Christians at a time when they are facing violence and intimidation from Hindu nationalist groups.

A pastor who requested anonymity said the honorarium would be highly appreciated by pastors serving in independent churches.

He said a pastor in a rural independent church earns up to 1,000 rupees (US$14) a month, less than 50 cents a day, which can hardly buy a kilogram of rice. The state honorarium of 5,000 rupees “will go a long way for people like me who have no other funding,” he said.

He said pastors in cities have large congregations to support them. “Pastors like me who preach in villages have no more than 20 people coming to us,” he said, adding that with such a meager income it is “extremely difficult to run a family.”

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