New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - A potentially explosive row is simmering here, after Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee criticized the activities of Christian missionaries in India.
Political parties and Christian missionaries have expressed concern over Vajpayee's weekend statement accusing some Christian missionaries of trying to force people to convert to their faith.
The All India Christian Council called the remark unfortunate, saying it would aggravate violence against minorities.
"Remarks such as these are seen as condoning the hate campaign and the canards, lies and half-truths that are being spread in many parts of the country. They encourage communal and extremist elements," the Council said in a statement.
The remarks also raised concerns in the political establishment, with the main opposition Congress Party accusing Vajpayee of "casting aspersions at the Christian community."
"The remarks have the potential of creating a sense of insecurity among the minority community," said Congress spokesman Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi.
Vajpayee made his comment at a function of a fundamentalist Hindu organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), in which he served as a volunteer for many years.
While some Christian missionaries were engaged in good work, he said, others were converting Hindus.
Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoys mass support of Hindu voters, primarily marshaled by the RSS. In recent times, the government has been under fire from the RSS for its reformist economic policies.
Observers saw the prime minister's as an attempt to reassure the RSS that the ruling party was not deviating from pro-Hindu policies.
The RSS welcomed Vajpayee's statement as an endorsement of its view that forcible Christian conversations were being carried out.
Hindu fundamentalists maintain that Christians are involved in "forced conversions" of poor Hindus, even though there are no independent figures to substantiate the claim. They charge that more than 200,000 of the 22.5 million Christians are converts from Hindu.
Many missionaries run schools, dispensaries and old age homes in poor areas of India. Hindu organizations like the RSS and the World Hindu Council accuse some missionaries of luring poor Hindus into Christianity by offering them money, food, jobs and other incentives.
Christians fear the sentiment may result in more violence against their community. Among other incidents in recent years, an Australian missionary and his two sons, aged 7 and 10, were burnt to death five years ago while they slept in their vehicle in the eastern province of Orissa.
Their killers doused the vehicle with petrol, lit it and then prevented a handful of locals from trying to rescue the trapped trio.
Until his death, Graham Staines had been working with leprosy patients for 32 years.
Right to religion is a fundamental right under the Indian constitution, which confers upon every citizen the right to practice his or her own religion.
However, the issue of conversion has been a topic of lengthy public debate in India with some quarters suggesting that it should be constitutionally banned.
RSS spokesman in New Delhi, M.G. Vaidya, said while the organization backed Vajpayee's statement, they did not believe it had been intended to cover all missionaries.
"It is wrong to say that the prime minister has tarred every missionary with the same brush. There are some missionaries who are doing sincere work, and they need not worry about the impact of his statement," Vaidya said.