28 December 2005

There’s an elephant-sized religion story behind this short news item from The Times of India, which reports the re-conversion of 16 Christians in the Indian state of Orissa, who returned to their original Hinduism — by far the predominant religion in the province — this week, becoming a handful of the 733 Christians who have re-entered the “Hindu fold” this year. The story points to an ongoing, but thoroughly overlooked conflict between Christian missionaries and their converts in Southeast Asian countries like India and Sri Lanka, and hard-line Hindus and Buddhists who accuse the Christians of using coercive tactics in winning converts, and attempt to thwart their efforts with anti-conversion laws, and sometimes, intimidation. But the Orissa conflict, like that in Sri Lanka, is one that rarely merits a mention outside either regional papers — which claim that the missionaries bribe poor people and children with offers of food or assistance — or the evangelical press, which calls the anti-conversion measures oppressive of religious freedom. In the case of the Orissa re-converts, a Christian website makes its own claim about forced conversions: accusing Orissa’s Hindu “fundamentalists” of using anti-conversion legislation to manipulate illiterate and poor Christians out of their chosen religion. Beyond such polarized reports, there’s certainly a story to be told about this holy war for any reporter who cares to look beyond the prime-time conception of newsworthy religious conflicts.