An estimated 80 families were reconverted to Hinduism Sunday, Oct. 17 in a public ceremony that took place in the Indian state of Orissa. According to sources, the families received gifts such as food and new clothing following the event.
“Although the media reported that 80 families were reconverted to Hinduism, the truth of the matter is that 336 people went back to Hinduism as a result of force and promises,” Alphonse Bilung, Bishop of Rourkela in Orissa told Italy-based AsiaNews. “Fundamentalist groups are telling lies and inflating the numbers of reconversions in order to scare the Tribals. This way they can boast about the success of their drives.”
According to AsiaNews, Bilung, who contacted the priest in whose parish the reconversions are said to have occurred, was told that a large number of Hindus gathered Sunday afternoon at a place a few miles from the Church. Tribal natives from three different villages within the area were driven to the Orissa’s Sindurgh district in northern India, where the reconversion ceremony was to take place.
The priest told the news agency that fundamentalist groups are very active in Orissa and make life difficult for Christian Tribals who are often threatened if they attend Church services. Because these Christians live among Hindus and rely largely on the Hindu majority for employment, they find it very hard to live. This is especially true in Rourkela’s iron ore sector, AsiaNews reported.
Bilung said that a recent rally by Charismatic Christians in the Rourkela area is the likely reason for the recent reconversions. He reported that tribals and many Hindus took part in the event hoping that their illness could be cured. This provoked fundamentalists’ wrath because “they think that rallies such as this are conversion drives,” the bishop said.
Although the Orissa state assembly passed a Freedom of Religion Acts, which bans forced conversion, sources say the law has been used to threaten the largely illiterate Tribals who can more easily be manipulated by Hindu fundamentalists.
Bilung pointed out that in his diocese, “the Church is involved in social welfare and empowerment program and runs many dispensaries that offer Tribals medical assistance. In addition, the Church regularly conducts medical camps in the remotest areas of the diocese and manages 200 schools open to children of all castes and communities.”
However, because of their missionary activities, Christian mission workers have been frequent targets of persecution and the Freedom of Religion law has reportedly made it easier for them to be harassed.
“I wonder if these right-wing fundamentalists had the permission of the collector of Rourkela to reconvert the Tribals since the law applies to them as well,” Bilung said.
Surprisingly, however, mass conversions, are not a new phenomenon in Orissa, one of the Indian states with the strongest presence of Hindu fundamentalists.
Last September 76 Tribal Christians ‘re-embraced’ Hinduism in the village of Sarat, Mayurbhanj district, in a ceremony organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a fundamentalist group very active in the state. VHP described the whole event as “a return home for the tribal people”.