Baptists jailed for raising a riot

Tim McGirk in New Delhi reports on the problems facing US missionaries who fell foul of suspicious Indian officials
When they set out for eastern India, the Baptist missionaries from the Gospel of Unreached Millions had not counted on India's bureaucracy or the Orissa tribe's fierce temperament. So instead of converting some of the 600,000 tribespeople to Christianity through a "magic cure" faith-healing session, one Singaporean and nine American evangelists found themselves roughed up, tossed into a one-room jail, and accused of fomenting a riot and trying to murder policemen.

Indian officials usually take a dim view of foreign missionaries. Intelligence agencies have accused some evangelical groups of stirring up revolt among the Naga and the Bodo tribes in the north-eastern states, while church authorities in New Delhi contend that increasing numbers of foreign clergy are being asked to leave India when their visas run out.

At their Texas headquarters, the members of the Gospel of Unreached Millions had been briefed on the idiosyncrasies of the Orissa tribespeople: the women wore beads, tattoos and little else, while some men carried axes and spent most of the day drunk on a smelly palm brew. So when the missionaries announced their plans to stage a faith-healing jamboree in the market town of Badapada, in southern Orissa, on 29 March, the authorities refused on the grounds that they would "attempt to convert tribals to Christianity". But the evangelists apparently thought the Lord wanted them to go ahead with the gospel-spreading, anyway.

As thousands of tribespeople, most of whom worship spirits, sacred trees and fetishes, gathered in curiosity at a Baptist camp, police tried to chase them off. The angry Orissa people fought back, pelting the police and many spectators with stones. Seven policemen and more than 100 others were hurt in the barrage. The 10 foreign missionaries were arrested along with 13 local Baptist organisers.

An American consul flew down from Calcutta on Tuesday evening and secured their release under the condition that the foreigners paid 100,000 rupees (£2,000) bail, extremely high for India. Their passports were seized to stop them leaving India until a court hearing in 30 days. The charge of attempted murder was dropped.

"These evangelists have realised that faith-healing really clicks with the tribals and with the Untouchables,'' said Arun Shourie, a prominent journalist who has written on Christian missionaries in India. ``The only problem is that once the emotion of the initial conversion fades, then the tribals tend to drift back to their old practices.''

A wave of Hindu revivalism now sweeping India has focused new opposition to Christian missions in the country. Five nuns at a convent near New Delhi were attacked on Sunday evening, when intruders broke into their dormitory and beat them with clubs. "Burglary is not the motive,'' said Father Xavier Vadakkekara. ``The sisters do not have any valuables. So it is for something else."

Some press reports suggested that the convent attack was meant to scare the nuns into stopping their missionary work. Although only 2.6 per cent of India's 870 million people are Christians, many middle-class Hindu families send their children to Christian schools and their sick to Christian hospitals.

Often, foreign missionaries in India are suspected of being spies. This distrust dates back to the British Raj. As Mr Shourie explained, "During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Christian missionaries were an arm of British rule." The suspicion lingers.

Since independence in 1947, however, the British are being elbowed out increasingly by American evangelists. According to a directory of American church groups, US missionaries now sponsor more than 3,000 societies in India, up from only 420 in 1973. Many of these are in Orissa and the north-eastern states where Hinduism did not spread into the jungle hills. Untouchable Hindus sometimes convert to Christianity to escape caste persecution.