Adventist leaders have appealed to Indian authorities to investigate the possible forced reconversion of Seventh-day Adventists to Hinduism in a northern Indian village.
Forced conversion is illegal in India, and a reconversion ceremony last week in Asroi, located about 110 miles (175 kilometers) south of India’s capital, New Delhi, raised fears in the wider Christian community that hard-line Hindus were compelling people to switch faiths in a part of the world that can be especially challenging for missionaries.
“We have made a petition to the local civic authority and to even higher levels for an inquiry,” said T.P. Kurian, communication director for the church’s Southern Asia Division.
He added: “May I urge you to keep this matter in prayer.”
The last members of the Asroi church switched to Hinduism at an Aug. 26 ceremony, church leaders said Sunday. The church, which opened with 33 members in 2005, had about six regular attendees left when the reconversion ceremony took place.
“It is obvious from sources that there are some Hindu fundamental groups behind this havoc who have forced these believers to go back to their previous faith,” said Mohan Bhatti, communication director for the Northern India Union, citing a report from a four-member Adventist delegation that visited the village last week.
Church Under Police Watch
Indian media reported that dozens of active and non-active Adventists had reconverted at the ceremony, and that hardliners had turned the Asroi church into a temple to the Hindu god Siva, replacing its cross with an idol. The reports included a photo of two men hanging a poster of Siva on a church wall.
But the visiting delegation found no evidence that the church had been disturbed.
“The idol of Shiva was not found there, and the church has not been turned into a temple,” the delegation said in the report. “It seems that a poster of Shiva was brought and raised up there for a few moments with the purpose of filming and publishing.”
The report added: “The church building is kept under police surveillance by civil administration to avoid any untoward incident. We have the freedom to conduct our weekly worship service.”
Bhatti said an official inquiry was needed “into this very sensitive issue that may cause disharmony in the community.”
History of Asroi Church
The Asroi church’s history stretches back to 2001, when 33 villagers accepted the Adventist faith, according to local Adventist leaders. Land for the church was purchased in 2004, and Maranatha Volunteers International, a nonprofit organization, built the church the next year.
Church attendance dipped in the following years. Two families stopped attending in 2007, leaving 20 people at Sabbath services. Only five to seven people were attending regularly when the reconversion ceremony took place.
It was unclear how many former Adventists reconverted. Indian media, citing Hindu activists at the ceremony, put the figure at 72, although this could not be reconciled with the lower membership figure offered by church leaders.
The loss of the last church members surprised the pastor, said S.P. Singh, a local Adventist leader who was on the delegation that visited the church.
“The local pastor, Vikas Paswan, has been taking care of the church for 10 years,” he said. “He conducted Sabbath worship regularly. He didn’t have any idea that this could happen in the future.”
He called on church members to pray for the pastor and the Asroi church.
“Our pastor needs our fervent prayers in this unfavorable situation,” he said. “Let’s encourage them with our prayers and support.”
The Adventist Church has opened its own inquiry into the situation.
Hindus Call Reconversion Voluntary
Khem Chandra, who attended the reconversion ceremony and is a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a nationalist Hindu group, said it was quite clear what had happened.
“They left by choice, and today they have realized their mistake and want to come back,” he told The Times of India in remarks published Thursday. “We welcome them.”
Chandra said he had met with eight local Adventist families repeatedly over the years and urged them to rethink their faith.
The notion that the reconversions were voluntary was greeted with skepticism.
“It is the right of an individual to convert to any religion of his choice, but such mass conversions imply political, social and physical coercion and threat of violence,” said John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council, a group of top politicians and public figures formed 50 years ago to find ways to resolve problems that divide Indian society. Dayal spoke to UCAnews.com, an independent Catholic news site.
Former Adventists Speak Out
One former Adventist interviewed by the Times of India said that disenchantment with India’s caste system had led him to Adventism and then back to Hinduism.
“As Hindus we had no status and were restricted to doing menial jobs, but even after remaining a Christian for 19 years, we saw that no one came to us from their community,” villager Anil Gaur said. “There was no celebration of Bada Din [Christmas]. The missionaries just built a church for us in the vicinity where some of the villagers got married. That was all."
Singh, the delegation member who visited the church last week, said in the report to the Northern Indian Union that he had made three previous trips to the church and that during one of them, in 2012, he had overseen its repairs and made sure it received carpets, songbooks, New Testaments, and materials for a pulpit.
Another former church member, Rajendra Singh, 70, told the newspaper that a physical scare outside the village’s church had convinced him to leave.
"While sleeping outside the church one day I suffered a paralytic attack,” he said. “I found myself unable to move. It happened last year, and since then I have been thinking that it may have been Mata Devi's punishment for abandoning my faith.”
Chandra, the Hindu activist, expressed hope that a first Hindu temple would soon be opened in the village, perhaps even in the Adventist church.
"We will think about the church building. It belongs to the missionaries, but the ground on which it stands belongs to Hindustan,” he said. “We will not compromise on our dharti [earth]. We will meet the villagers and decide about the temple.”