- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

BANGALORE, India — Anyone wanting a seat at the Full Gospel Assembly of God Church here must show up early Sunday morning to get past the milling crowds and beggars outside the front entrance.

Full Gospel symbolizes what is schizophrenic about Christianity in India: It is prosperous in some places and persecuted in some states. High-tech Bangalore is in Christianized southern India, which may be why Full Gospel is one of the country’s fastest-growing congregations.

It is impressive even by American megachurch standards. It has 12,000 members, a dozen assistant pastors and 15 services each weekend in several languages. Its Sri Lankan pastor, Paul Thangiah, 47, copies the mannerisms and accouterments of American preachers — even to the plexiglass pulpit and potted plants.

“Let India be washed by the blood of Jesus Christ,” he prays as a boisterous English-language service gets under way in sweltering heat.

Many church programs

Full Gospel, located in the well-to-do Indiranagar suburb in India’s third-largest city, has a feeding program for widows and street children; driving classes for unemployed boys hoping to be taxi drivers and a women-only prayer group on Wednesday mornings.

The latter, the pastor explained in an interview, was established so non-Christian women can sneak out of the house on a weekday when their husbands are at work. “Hindu women don’t want their husbands to know,” he said.

Converts make up 50 percent of the church’s members, and the pastor is proud he receives no money from abroad. He likes to relate how, when he wanted to build a home for the aged, he raised 50,000 rupees (about $1,100) on a single Sunday morning.

Not only are the poor joining the church, so are the well-to-do, and Mr. Thangiah is not above introducing several of Bangalore’s more influential businessmen to foreign visitors. His church has expanded by 2,000 members since last year, a 20 percent growth.

“We cannot stop from preaching the Gospel,” he said before dashing out the door to preach. “Hindus are looking for the supernatural to happen.”

Officially, Christians comprise 2.3 percent of India’s more than 1 billion population. Unofficially, he insists, the number is closer to 8 percent.

Site lists attacks

But Sajan George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), also based in Bangalore, paints a picture far from rosy. He oversees a Web site (http://persecution.in) that lists hundreds of reported attacks around the country against Christians, many from Dalit (untouchable) and tribal backgrounds, who have been murdered, raped and had their homes and churches destroyed. Rarely are the perpetrators caught, much less punished, the Web site claims.

Featured on the Internet site is an account of the Nov. 21 gunning down by Islamist militants of GCIC’s Kashmir coordinator, Bashir Tantray, in front of his parents’ home in Baramulla, Kashmir. The father of four children, he was a social worker who had received several death threats from Muslims because of his work with local churches.

Claims made on the Web site could not be independently verified.

This year there have been about 200 attacks on Christians in India — 40 in the state of Madhya Pradesh alone — Mr. George said. Most involve radical Hindu groups trying to force new Christian converts to return to Hinduism.

Madhya Pradesh is one of several states that have laws on the books or pending that forbid Indians from converting from whatever religion they were born in. Other states with such laws include Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa and Gujarat. Tamil Nadu state, south of Bangalore, has such a law but may repeal it.

Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, is not on that list.

City churches safer

Churches in cities tend to be safe — they are close to news organizations and can publicize attacks. However, “Within 50 kilometers [31 miles] of Bangalore city, you’ll see few churches there,” Mr. George said. “Christians tend to be soft targets, because they do not fight back. Hindu radicals use them for target practice before they go after the Muslims.”

Late this summer in Lakshmipuram, a neighborhood not far from the Full Gospel church, a smaller Assembly of God congregation was shut down.

“It was run by a Pastor Benny,” Mr. George said, “and the radicals told him he could not conduct a worship service there. They told him it was a Hindu neighborhood. Paul Thangiah’s church has no ability to stand up for the poor preachers who really stand for the Gospel in India.”

The Indian Embassy in Washington refused to comment on the issue, but the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has removed India from its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), which names what the commission deems the world’s worst religious persecutors. India was put on the list in 2004 over the purported violent treatment of Christians and Muslims at the hands of the then-ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

After the BJP was defeated in India’s 2004 elections and the government took steps this year to prevent religious communal violence, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that India be removed from the CPC list.

The target of the BJP’s ire is often the Dalits, thousands of whom have rejected the Hindu caste system that made them “untouchables” and embraced Buddhism and, to a smaller extent, Christianity and Islam. BJP-dominated states have passed anti-conversion laws, said Moses Parmar, North India director for the Dalit Freedom Network, a Christian organization.

‘No power, no justice’

“If you do not have power on your side, there is no justice for you. You come from a country where everything works,” Mr. Parmar told this reporter over dinner at a restaurant in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. “Indian justice is one of the slowest in the world.”

It was slow to come to the aid of a Christian orphanage in Kota, southeastern Rajasthan. On Feb. 20, it was attacked reportedly by Hindu fundamentalists. Two administrators of Emmanuel Hope Home were arrested, the orphanage’s bank accounts frozen, and its license revoked. Christian groups said the Hindu officials even tried to shut off electricity and water serving 2,500 children.

Eighteen days earlier, a Hindu mob attacked another Emmanuel orphanage in Tindole, western Rajasthan, killing a boy and injuring other children.

More death threats, desecrations of Christian schools and orphanages around the state, and the March 16 arrest of orphanage president Sam Thomas, spurred Hopegivers International of Columbus, Ga., its American patron, to mount an international publicity campaign.

After much foreign criticism and some from members of India’s parliament, Mr. Thomas was freed on May 2 after 47 days in jail. He is trying to rebuild the orphanage, which was wrecked during last spring’s riots.

Mother church grows

Living under anti-conversion laws can be dicey, said Finny Philip, president of the 120-student Filadelphia Bible School in Udaipur, Rajasthan. His school is in a verdant park next to Filadelphia Fellowship Church, a congregation of 600 that used to have public baptisms in nearby Fateh Sagar Lake.

“Whenever we did that, people would call the police and say we were forcibly converting people,” he said.

Filadelphia was founded in 1963 by Thomas Mathews, a Malayalam-speaking missionary from Kerala who learned Hindi to win northern Indians to Christianity. It is now the mother church for 1,200 churches with 150,000 believers.

Forty-three years ago, Udaipur was an isolated backwater of 60,000 people near the border with Pakistan. Today its population has increased tenfold and it is a world tourist destination famed for its glistening lakes and opulent Rajput palaces known as “the Venice of India.”

Despite the influx of Westerners, churches in Rajasthan exist on a knife-edge of the law. The state assembly passed an anti-conversion law April 2, but the governor has refused to sign it.

Converts harassed

Still, life there is far better than in the countryside, where pastors must baptize new believers at hidden wells in the middle of the night, Mr. Philip said.

He said 14 members of his denomination were falsely imprisoned for two years in Madhya Pradesh. Recently, three of its pastors accused of trying to convert villagers to Christianity were jailed. They are still in prison.

“In the past six months, the government has asked the police to get full details of each church here,” he said. “We had to submit pastor’s photograph, one of the local church, and tell our sources of income and the names of members.”

The church refused to name its members, saying it does not keep a membership roster.

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