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Massive 'Reconversion' Event in India Aimed at Christians

Hundreds of tribal Christians and adherents of aboriginal religion from villages in Maharashtra state were reportedly "reconverted" to Hinduism Monday in the Mumbai suburb of Thane at a ceremony led by a Hindu nationalist cleric.

Swami Narendra Maharaj's goal was to "reconvert" 6,000 Christians in the so-called purification ceremony, reported The Hindustan Times, which put the number of "reconversions" at around 800. Hindu nationalists believe all Indians are born Hindu and therefore regard acceptance of Hinduism by those practicing other religions as "reconversion."

Maharaj, a Hindu cleric known for opposing proclamation of Christ, has allegedly led anti-Christian attacks in tribal regions. On March 15, 2008, his men reportedly attacked two Catholic nuns, Sister Marceline and Sister Philomena, from the non-profit Jeevan Jyoti Kendra (Light of Life Center) in Sahanughati, near Mumbai.

The attack took place in a camp to educate tribal women on HIV/AIDS, which also provided information on government welfare programs, according to Indo-Asian News Service. The assault in Sahanughati, Alibaug district was followed by a mass "reconversion" ceremony in the area on April 27, 2008, said Ram Puniyani, a well-known civil rights activist in Mumbai.

Rightwing Hindu groups are mostly active in tribal areas. Hindu nationalists attack Christians in tribal areas because they provide social and development services, regarded as competition by rightwing Hindus seeking to woo tribal voters, said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Maharashtra's Pune city.

Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in August-September 2008, is also a tribal-majority area. At least 100 Christians were killed, 4,600 houses and churches were burned, and over 50,000 people were rendered homeless in the violence.

Sociologists maintain that India's tribal peoples are not Hindus but practice their own ethnic faiths. Hindu nationalists run Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) in tribal regions to "Hinduize" local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths. These schools are operating in over 27,000 villages of India. 

Dubious Claims

An anonymous spokesman of Maharaj said the plan for Monday's event was to "reconvert" 6,000 Christians to achieve the larger goal of "bringing back" 100,000 Christians, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

The rightwing spokesman in Maharashtra, a western state where Hindu nationalism originated decades ago, claimed that Maharaj and his followers had overseen the conversion of more than 94,000 Christians "back to their original faith" and plan to complete the target of 100,000 in the next two years.

Maharaj, whose followers call him Jagat Guru (Guru of the World), told PTI that those who "reconverted" were not coerced.

"We are not having a religious conversion here - it's a process of purification," Maharaj was quoted as saying. "We taught them the precepts of the Hindu religion, and they decided to convert to Hinduism on their own after repentance. They were not forced."

Many reports of "reconversions," however, have been found to be false.

In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had "reconverted" to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

The Hindustan Times reported yesterday's ceremony included rituals involving cow's milk, seeking forgiveness from ancestors, installation of idols of the Hindu gods Ganesh and Vishnu, and an offering ritual performed by priests from Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

Home of Hindu Nationalism

The basic philosophy of Hindu nationalism was expounded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar, in 1923 through the publishing of a pamphlet, "Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?" Savarkar, who is from Maharashtra, argued that only those who have their ancestors from India as well as consider India as their holy land should have full citizenship rights.

A follower of Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, also from Maharashtra, further developed the Hindu nationalist philosophy through a book, "A Bunch of Thoughts," in 1966. He claimed superiority of Hinduism over other religions and cultures of the world.

"In this land, Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits [bandits]," he said.

The emergence of Hindu nationalist ideology from Maharashtra came in reaction to the politics of social justice by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule, said Irfan Engineer, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Mumbai and an expert on religious conflicts. Phule led a mass movement of emancipation of lower castes, mainly Shudras and Ati-Shudras or Dalits, in the 1870s. Ambedkar, known as the architect of the Indian Constitution, began movements against "untouchability" in the 1920s.

Also born in Maharashtra was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, or RSS), India's most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate. It was founded in 1925 in Nagpur by Dr. K.B. Hedgewar.

Hindu society has traditionally had four castes or social classes, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. While Shudras belong to the lowest caste, Dalits were formerly known as "untouchables" because the priestly Brahmin class considered them to be outside the confines of the caste system.

During British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, sections of the Brahmins felt the British were sympathetic towards the Dalit reformist movement, said Engineer of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Mahars, Maharashtra's largest Dalit people group, have been very organized and powerful since then.

The PUCL's Rajan said that the Brahmins have long portrayed minorities as enemies of Hinduism.

"Since the Dalit reformist movement is essentially against the Brahmin hegemony, the Brahmins had to react and get organized," Rajan said. "As a part of their strategy to weaken the reformist movement, Brahmins projected minorities as the ‘real' enemies of all Hindus, including Dalits and other lower castes, diverting attention away from the atrocities they meted out on them."

Most of the founding leaders of Hindu nationalism, including Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar, were Brahmins. Since communal troubles benefited Hindu nationalists politically, the use of divisive issues became routine for them, Rajan added.

After two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party, political wing of the RSS, in general elections in 2004 and 2009, differences between the moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement - which blame each other for the party's downfall - have deepened to unprecedented levels.

In frustration, the extremists have accelerated their activities, especially in Maharashtra, the ideological capital, said Dr. Suresh Khairnar, a well-known civil activist from Nagpur.

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Iraq Bombing Leaves Baghdad Church Nearly Ruined

Iraq's deadliest bombing in two years left a Baghdad church littered with body parts and nearly ruined.

Canon Andrew White, the Anglican leader of St. George's church in Baghdad, said the twin truck bombing Sunday "almost totally ruined" the church compound, which includes a medical clinic, bookstore and school.

"Everything is destroyed," he wrote Sunday in an e-mail update. "The windows themselves were all blown out. Not just the glass but the frames were even blown out. All of the cars in the compound were destroyed. Even the Danish Memorial was destroyed. Almost everything we put in the church and clinic is totally destroyed."

More than 150 people were killed Sunday and another 600 injured when two suicide car bombs blew up almost simultaneously outside the Justice Ministry and city government offices in downtown Baghdad. The coordinated attacks were the deadliest since a series of massive truck bombs in northern Iraq killed nearly 500 villagers in August 2007, the Associated Press reported.

Although Sunday services had not started, the downtown church "was full of body parts," White said. As of Sunday, some church members could not be located.

"Today was a terrible day for us," White wrote. "But even in the blood and trauma and turmoil, there are things for which we can, and indeed must, praise our G-d. The carnage was terrible, but it could have been even worse."

The bomb hit at 10:30 a.m. when no one was in the church. "If the bomb had been just a few hours later, the glass from the windows would have ripped through the congregation causing terrible human damage," White said.

He added that a storm on Saturday felled a huge tree outside the church, preventing the suicide bomber from detonating his explosives at a place where they could have caused even more damage.

Known as "the vicar of Baghdad," White is the founder of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East and has spearheaded the religious track of the Middle East peace process, which aims to bridge the divides among Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities.

The 2,000-member St. George's church provided a free medical and dental clinic to Iraqis, regardless of their religious or ethnic background. The facility was staffed by a team of Muslim, Christian and Jewish doctors and outfitted with expensive medical equipment.

"In a moment, much of this equipment has been destroyed, placing it permanently out of reach of the Iraqi people who need it so desperately," White said.

The bombing is a reminder of that the church's work in Iraq is "absolutely essential," White added.

"We must continue to provide a place of worship for Iraqi Christians," he said. "We must continue to treat the medical needs of Iraqi civilians. And we must continue to engage with the senior religious leaders from across the sectarian divides, working with them to challenge the belief systems that lie behind this terrible slaughter."

Saying "we will not stop because of this," White has requested financial assistance for a rebuilding effort.

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Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India

Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said. read more

Ukraine Pastor May Face New Investigation

A prominent Ukraine pastor alleged to be part of a $100 million fraud case is maintaining his innocence as a new investigation against him is initiated.

Pastor Sunday Adelaja, founder of The Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations in Kiev, one of the largest churches in Eastern Europe, said Ukraine authorities are looking for ways to charge him with treason for preaching that he wanted to see Ukraine become a Christian nation.

The Interior Ministry claims Adelaja preached that the main task of his church was to create a "Christian state" in Ukraine, which "ignores the obvious fact of the Ukrainian statehood," the Ukrainian news site PolitInform.org reported.

Adelaja said the new accusation proves that the fraud charges linking him to the King's Capital financial group are simply an attempt to attack his ministry.

The Nigeria-born pastor, whose congregation was one of several to protest government corruption and alleged election fraud during Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, said the treason accusation could be placed on any church that seeks to influence its nation's government.

"Everything that has happened is not because of King's Capital, but it's because of the influence of our church that is seen as a threat," Adelaja said. "It's about political repression."

Adelaja openly teaches that churches should influence government, business and society, and made it the theme of his book Church Shift.

No additional charges have been filed, but the Ministry of Internal Affairs, led by Yuriy Lutsenko, has held closed-door meetings with Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers and President Viktor Yushchenko, asking them to launch an investigation into the alleged treason, PolitInform.org reported.

Adelaja has repeatedly denied involvement in King's Capital, an investment company co-founded by a member of his church. The organization promised returns as high as 60 percent, but last November stopped paying dividends to investors.

Investors, most of whom were church members, went to authorities last fall, claiming they had lost as much as $100 million.

Adelaja says the financial group was not a Ponzi scheme, as some alleged, but a legitimate business that failed as a result of the global economic crisis. In late August, King's Capital was declared bankrupt.

Despite Adelaja's claims, several Ukrainian church leaders, including a group of nine bishops representing thousands of congregations, denounced the pastor in a statement last December, saying he repeatedly endorsed King's Capital. Some also alleged that he was involved in its leadership.

In March, Adelaja was charged with embezzling funds "in very large amounts via fraud," which carries a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.

Adelaja said his ministry is suing the Interior Ministry and the police for "unlawful accusation and libel."

"After five court hearings they have still not presented any evidence to the judge who asked for it in the first court hearing," Adelaja said. "We see that we will win, and because of this they are trying something new with this new accusation."

Christian attorney Joel Thornton, general counsel of the International Human Rights Group, believes Adelaja's legal battles are rooted in racism and religious oppression.

"This really is about his success," said Thornton, who consults Adelaja and has been involved in religious liberty cases throughout Europe for more than a decade. "If he weren't a Nigerian immigrant pastor having one of the largest most active groups of congregations in Europe, which are made up largely of non-Nigerian members, he wouldn't have these problems."

Thornton may get involved in Adelaja's case in January if there is no resolution before then. He said the controversy over King's Capital complicates what would otherwise be a clear case of religious persecution.

He believes Adelaja's claims that King's Capital was a legitimate organization that failed because most of its investments were in real estate. But he said it remains unclear whether Adelaja endorsed the business, one of dozens launched by church members, from the pulpit.

"He told me he talked about it some, but he said he never [told members to] make an investment," Thornton said. "I don't believe he's profited from it from what I know from him."

He said Christians should be concerned about the Interior Ministry's attempt to charge Adelaja with treason. In Europe, he said government officials try to control the spread of evangelical groups by lumping Christians in with dangerous sects or forcing churches to meet rigid criteria to register with the government.

Although he thinks it is unlikely to happen, Thornton said if Ukraine were successful in charging Adelaja with treason, other nations may follow its lead.

"Attacking a pastor who says we want to make this a Christian nation, that kind of approach, if Ukraine has some success with it, it could spread in those Eastern European countries," Thornton said.

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Worship Site Demolished, Pastors Arrested in China

Following a mob attack on a church in northeastern China and the demolition of their worship site last month, the government put officials on alert to use military force against churches to quell potential "unrest," according to a leading advocacy group. read more

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