How safe is India for Christians


John Dayal

was a newspaper editor, has written books and made documentaries. Today he is Secretary General of the All India Christian Council, which was founded in 1999, and a member of the National Integration Council chaired by the Prime Minister. He lives in New Delhi.

Translation: Stefan Mentschel

Past and present of a religious minority in India

Christianity has a long tradition in India. Especially in the south of the country there has been Christian life for centuries. Elsewhere, the work of missionaries and mass conversions has left deep marks. According to official information, around two and a half percent of India's billions of people today profess the Christian faith. However, many experts assume that the number is far higher.

The Catholic Notre Dame des Anges Church in Pondicherry, in the Union territory of the same name. (& copy picture alliance / CPA Media)

India is home to one of the oldest Christian communities on earth - the Thomas Christians in the southern state of Kerala. The country also has the world's largest underground church with believers who originally come from the lowest Hindu castes or are members of the indigenous tribal population. So that they do not lose their economic and political rights and often also for fear of violent attacks, they keep their Christian faith a secret. While one group enjoys the acceptance of the political and social center of India due to its tradition, the other is branded as "crypto-Christians" and forced to lead a double life: They are Hindus in public life and in population statistics, but confess themselves to them in secret Jesus Christ. There is also another group, the so-called Kristu Bhaktas, who believe in Christ, but at the same time also worship deities from the Hindu pantheon.

For most people, Indian Christians can hardly be distinguished from their Hindu neighbors in their culture, in the way they dress or in their eating habits. They are part of the regional, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity that characterizes India. Despite conversion and education, many Christians even hold on to traditional caste affiliations and caste structures, which still strongly shape Hindu society in the 21st century.

More Indian Christians than officially stated

With this in mind, the official Indian census is certainly not the best way to determine the number of Christians in the country. In any case, there has been no data on the religious composition of the population since the 2001 census, as the government fears that publication of these data could provoke conflicts in Indian society, which is deeply divided along religious lines.

In recent years, for example, fears have been voiced in parts of the Hindu majority population that religious minorities - especially the Muslims - due to high birth rates, the Hindus could marginalize the Hindus. The population growth of Indian Muslims was 36 percent between 1991 and 2001, compared to 30 percent in the previous decade. Among the Hindus, the rate was 20 percent between 1991 and 2001, compared to 23 percent before that. This paranoia, as well as the rift between the religious communities generated by the partition of British India in 1947 and which continues to this day, has repeatedly led to confrontations. More than 30,000 cases of religiously motivated violence have been recorded since independence.

According to the 2001 census, 80.5 percent of the then 1.02 billion people in India professed Hinduism (2011 census: 1.21 billion people). Muslims made up 11.4 percent of the population, Christians 2.3 percent, Sikhs 1.9 percent, Buddhists 0.8 percent, Jainas 0.4 percent. In India there are also Jews, Zorastrians, and followers of the Baha'i faith. In addition, many members of the indigenous population practice traditional religions such as ancestor worship. However, many sides doubt that the proportion of Christians should be only 2.3 percent. The Catholic Church, Protestants and the numerous Pentecostal churches all claim that the number of their followers could be two to three times too high than indicated in the census.

Christian strongholds in the south and northeast

According to social scientists, there is ample evidence that this may well be true. For example, some questions in the census prevented former members of the lowest castes - the Dalits or Scheduled Castes - from registering as Christians. In the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, there are also groups that deliberately forego this in order to be able to continue to benefit from government subsidies, which also include quota regulations for the allocation of study places or public service jobs. If these people were to officially convert to Christianity, they would lose these privileges, which, according to Article 341 (III) of the constitution, only Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are entitled to. This law has so far been unsuccessfully challenged before the Supreme Court.

Some Christians live their faith in secret in order to avoid negative consequences such as exclusion and discrimination in their immediate living environment. They are called "secret Christians" or "crypto Christians" by their critics. Others, like the Kristu Bhaktas from the north Indian city of Varanasi, worship Christ publicly, but - as mentioned at the beginning - not only him, but also Hindu gods.

Against this background, the statisticians Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross assume that Christians make up 4.8 percent of the Indian population, which would be 58 million people. This information is supported by Chad Bauman, vice president of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies in the United States. The publicist Jason Madryk even speaks of 71 million Indian Christians or 5.84 percent of the population. In some publications, there is even talk of up to nine percent.

The Christian population is unevenly distributed within India. In some states and counties, Christians are a negligible figure, in others they are the majority. In the southern Indian city of Kerala, 35.5 percent of the population are Christians, in neighboring Tamil Nadu at least 19 percent. However, the greatest concentration is found in the small states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram in the northeast, in which more than 90 percent of residents profess Christianity.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in India with 17 million members. Followers of the Latin liturgy make up the majority with ten million believers. Six million belong to the Syro-Malabar Church, one million to the Syro-Malankar Church. With around two million members, the Church of South India is the largest Protestant cherry. The Church of North India has 1.5 million followers. The United Lutheran Churches, the Ancient Near Eastern Churches, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Believers Church each have one to two million attachments. According to religious scholars, around half of Indian Christians are now committed to evangelical free churches, Pentecostal churches, the charismatic movement or other independent churches and religious communities.

Arrival of the first Christians centuries ago

Both in India and in the Middle East there are indications of a lively exchange between peoples long before the beginning of the Christian era. Historians of the microscopic Jewish community in India believe that their ancestors came to the west coast as early as 1000 BC. In the decrees of the Persian ruler Xerxes it is mentioned that there were Jews in all parts of his empire that extended as far as India. Jewish communities prospered in many places along the Malabar coast. The apostle Thomas would have felt at home if he had actually come to India - as the vernacular and some historians believe.

One school of thought believes that there were several men by the name of Thomas who arrived in India at different times during the first four centuries, most recently Thomas of Cana in the fourth century. However, a patina of faith has now masked the actual facts relating to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in India. In Mylapore (now a district of Chennai) in Tamil Nadu, for example, there is a rock on which the saint's footprint can be seen. If the legend is to be believed, then the apostle Thomas is said to have proselytized in the Tamil Chera empire. Many centuries later, in this region, the Italian Jesuit Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656) donned the robes of a Hindu preacher - a sadhu or sanyasin - and preached about Jesus Christ in the native language of the locals.

Franciscan monks were also among the first Christians in India. The Franciscan Giovanni de Montecorvino came in 1293 and evangelized in the following 20 years mainly in the Western Ghats, a mountain range on the west coast of India. The French Dominican Jordanus Catalanus the Serverac was appointed the first Latin bishop of the diocese of Quilon (now Kollam in Kerala) in 1329. In 1348 Giovanni de Marignolli was the first papal envoy to Quilon.

First wave of missions: Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch

But the majority of Christianity on the Indian subcontinent can be traced back to two waves of missions in its present form and extent. The first was that of the Portuguese and Spanish, the French and the Dutch. The second was that of the British with their East India Company, the Church of England and the British Missionary Societies.

When the three-ship fleet of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, took an Arab lot on board in Zanzibar and entered the port of Calicut (today Kozhikode in Kerala) a little later, the seafarer must have been surprised because what he found in India was a vibrant and prosperous Christian community. On the other hand, he had expected a rich but pagan subcontinent to be civilized and exploited for its fine fabrics and spices. The Portuguese presence is possibly the best-documented chapter in the political and religious history of India - and it has left deep and indelible marks as the colonial power supported the missionary work.

The Portuguese showed both the friendly and brutal face of colonial rule during their rule. A rigid military regime, an exploitative economic system and the dreaded Inquisition crushed the lush landscape from Goa to southern Kerala. To this day, Goa has remained a cultural island with an amazing mix of Portuguese past and Hindu antiquity. And in the middle are the remains of the most famous man who has ever breathed the scent of the frangipani flowers in the monsoon-laden air - Saint Francis Xavier, one of the pioneers of Christian missions in Asia.

Second wave of missions: East India Company and Anglican Church

England, the other naval power of the time, initially waited. The East India Company received its charter from Queen Elizabeth on the last day of 1600. Shortly afterwards, their ships sailed to Surat in Gujarat with Anglican clergy on board. The local ruler granted the East India Company the right to trade. Surat became the headquarters of the English, from where they quickly established bases in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

Surprisingly, the East India Company gave little support to the first missionaries of the Anglican Church, forcing many to go to work in the more hospitable neighboring colonies of the Dutch and French. A possible reason for the reluctance of the company could have been the example of the Portuguese who, also because of the missionary zeal of the Church, had not managed to maintain their position in India. The great William Carey, who is considered the father of the Indian Renaissance, began his missionary work in 1801 in the Dutch colony of Serampore as a professor of the Bengali language. Later he also mastered Sanskrit, the language of the ancient Indian scripts. Carey found his place in the hearts of Indian Christians because he began translating the Bible into the languages ​​of the subcontinent.

The consolidation of the Indian state under British rule after the uprising of 1857 opened up new opportunities. During this time there were mass conversions in Tamil Nadu and Andhra (then Madras Presidency), in the undivided Punjab, in the tribal regions of Chhota Nagpur in central India and in the previously almost inaccessible mountain ranges of the northeast on the border with Burma and China. This phase of Christianity, which is closely linked to the foreign colonial power, has an effect to this day. The social and political consequences of proselytizing have plunged Indian (new) Christians into an identity crisis even before independence. And to this day they find it difficult to define their roots as Indian Christians.

Modern historians consider the rapid pace of mass conversions and the deep dislike of some missionaries for the traditions of indigenous religions and customs as faults. Mahatma Gandhisah in the work of missionaries an impoverishment of culture. The debate continues - inside and outside the Church. In defense of the missionaries, parliamentarian Mani Shankar Aiyer once wrote: "Christian missionaries have done a good job almost everywhere in India. We only need to look to Mother Theresa. The greatest religious successes have also been achieved in remote regions, where Hinduism had not advanced even after 5000 years.

"India's Christians have confidence in the secular state"

In the history of independent India there has been almost no political, administrative or military post that was not even filled by Christians. Christians were governors and prime ministers, ministers and judges. Christians have commanded the army, air force and navy in times of war and peace. They are artists and authors to whom one does not attach the label of religion, but whom one evaluates according to their achievements. Christian institutions such as schools and universities make their contribution to society and are open to young people of all religions.

Indian Christians are sensitive to external influences that want to deny them their Indian identity. In its innocent form, prejudices and stereotypes show up in popular films like Bollywood, in which Christians are shown as criminals or feeble-minded priests, or Christians as a whole as a community with a lax sexual morality. More dangerous are the repeated attempts to exploit the aversion to missionaries, to paint the specter of extraterritorial loyalties of Christians on the wall or to restrict clergy in their normal work under the pretext of wanting to prevent proselytizing. The Church has officially declared that proselytizing in the 21st century is not one of the priorities, but rather that its focus is on peace, justice and family.

At the same time, there are groups and individuals on the political fringes who repeatedly test how far they can go when confronting the Christian community. The anti-conversion laws in states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, the violent attacks in Kandhamal in Orissa or Mangalore in Karnataka (both in 2008) shocked Christians. Nevertheless, they have not lost confidence in the secular Indian state and in the open society. The opponents of the Indian Christians have had to recognize that the nation as a whole stands behind the Christians. And the Christians themselves have buried their denominational differences and the old dispute over litany and liturgy in order to be able to face threats together.