Fundamentalist Hindus are attempting to hijack relief efforts after a devastating earthquake on January 26 (CT, March 5, p. 35). Christians, meanwhile, are gearing up relief efforts while attempting to counter a public-relations miscue of their own.

Activists with leading Hindu groups, including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Sangh Parivar, and Bajrang Dal, have looted and distributed relief materials from Spain and Japan under their own banners. They are being helped by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governs Gujarat. Right-wing VHP leader Ashok Singhal said that Pope John Paul II's $4.3 million in relief funds should be rejected because it would be used to induce religious conversions.

About 10,000 poor people from the lower castes in and around the hard-hit city of Bhuj protested the relief efforts of Hindu groups, calling them "fascist elements." They refused to accept food from the Hindu organizations, claiming that hungry quake victims were compelled to chant to Hindu gods first.

The Hindu, a national newspaper, reports that "voluntary organizations. … said the relief materials they carried were forcibly taken over by the RSS or VHP."

Ecumenical News International (ENI) reports that a church work team led by nuns was greeted at the entrance to a remote village by Hindu radicals, who carried batons and asked, "Why have you come here?" The Hindus told the Catholics they were not needed and sent them to another village.

Roadblocks of Discrimination

The radicals' attempts to advance their political and religious agenda at the expense of other religious communities are part of a larger right-wing campaign to make the world's largest democracy an explicitly Hindu state. Muslims and Christians have been special targets of radical Hindus' hatred in recent years. Amid the tensions, church leaders are increasing their effort to provide food and shelter in Gujarat.

"We are focusing our relief efforts on [the] poor, Dalits, and the minorities," said Cedric Prakash, director of St. Xavier Social Service Society in Ahemedabad. "Despite all these obstacles, we have shown and provided 100 percent Christian commitment to the call of calamity."

John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), says Christian relief efforts have faced many hurdles. "The RSS and the RSS-minded officials didn't allow any other than BJP members from active participation in relief activities," he said. "But we are working regardless. … We are distressed that ultimately the victims are the poor people."

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The Christian community has persevered. Gideon Peter, Gujarat branch coordinator of Operation Mobilization India, told ENI he is aware of the Hindu charge that Christians are helping in order to gain converts. "Our sincere desire is to develop the society and uplift the exploited," Peter said. "In that light, if someone wants to follow the God I believe in, [that person is] welcome."

God's Punishment?

Christians in India got mired in their own controversy when T. John, a Christian and a Karnataka state civil aviation minister, said the earthquake was God's punishment for the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Gujarat state. Under fire by the BJP for the comment, John resigned his office. Church leaders quickly condemned the comment.

Prakash notes that John's comment reflects some of the current thinking among quake victims in Gujarat, which has been hit by a series of upheavals in recent years.

"The Christians here in Gujarat have chosen not to comment on T. John's statement," Prakash said. "But the poor people keep on asking, 'Why is there so much suffering in Gujarat? Why have there been floods? Why these droughts? Why has there been the cyclone? Why have there been communal riots? Why this quake?' "

John Dayal sees a chance to practice his faith: "This is an opportunity to show the love of the Christ to all the people—but it will be cruel to suggest that the evangelists or the churches see it as a Christian opportunity of winning souls."

Peter told ENI that while Christians do not have "an eye on conversion" as they provide help, if villagers see Christians staying for the long haul, "it is natural that some of them will approach us later with a request to become Christians."

"This is a moment for the clergy to turn the pangs of calamity into an opportunity to show the love of the Christ," said Eduardo M. Faleiro, a Christian member of the Indian Parliament. "The Christians also need to do some introspection and see how we can spread the message of Jesus Christ."

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of earthquake relief in India includes:
India's Christians Face Continued Threats | We must preach what we believe in spite of Hindu pressure, says Operation Mobilization India leader. (Feb. 15, 2001)

India's Quake Survivors Need Counseling | Earthquake survivors are desperate for more than material aid, Indian bishop warns. (Feb. 9, 2001)

Quake Rocks Hindu Hotbed | Agencies appeal for funds to aid victims. (Feb. 8, 2001)

Politician Who Saw God's Hand in Gujarat Quake Forced to Resign | Civil aviation minister had told Christians that quake was God's judgment against persecution of Christians. (Feb. 5, 2001)
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The Washington Times also covered problems with Christian relief work in Gujarat.

The Christianity Today Weblog recently noted that Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) president Ashok Singhal has called for Hindus to take up weapons against missionaries and other Christians.

For more on persecution in India, keep an eye on Christianity Today's persecution area.

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