Mary and Jesus
Mary and Jesus

The issue of Christian missionaries proselytizing in India has taken a bizarre turn after a church in the eastern state of Jharkhand installed a statue of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus depicted as "tribals," the indigenous people of the state. With dark brown complexions and sporting traditional Indian tribal clothing (white sari with red border, etc.), the statue in a church in the village of Singhpur has sparked outrage from local Hindus and other non-Christians who have called for its immediate removal.

According to a report in BBC last week, some non-Christian tribals even conducted a march in the nearby city of Ranchi to protest the statue. "It is … the first time in the state that Mother Mary and Baby Jesus have been portrayed as tribals. What was the need for it?" said Bandhan Tigga, the chief priest of the Sarna Society, a group that represents the non-Christian tribal population in Jharkhand. More than one-fourth of the state's population -- about 8.6 million people -- of Jharkhand are tribals, but only 3 percent of them are Christians.

"Showing Mother Mary as a tribal is a part of the larger design to make the tribal population believe that she was from their community and confuse them," Tigga added. "One hundred years from now, people here would start believing that Mother Mary was actually our tribal goddess. It's an attempt to convert Sarna tribals to Christianity. If they do not remove it, a nationwide protest will be organized.” Tigga told the Times of India that “Mother Mary was a foreigner and showing her as a tribal woman is definitely not correct."

In response, Christian tribals have defended the statue. "What's wrong in this? It's just like the Chinese, Japanese, Irish, German or even the African version of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus," said Father Augustine Kerketta, a senior church official in Ranchi. "It happens everywhere as part of enculturation of the local tradition." Kerketta also said some local politicians are likely behind the protests to foster religious enmity. "General elections are due early next year, and some people may wish to divide the Christian and non-Christian tribal populations for political gains," he said.

In a broader context, the conversion of Indians – whether they be tribals or others – has long been a sore point with Hindus who view the work of missionaries as a form of intervention by foreign forces to degrade and/or diminish Indian culture. Indeed, some Hindu organizations have praised Tigga's efforts. The Haindava Keralam, a Hindu advocacy group based in the southwestern state of Kerala, commented that, by draping Mother Mary in the clothes of Indian tribals, Christian missionaries are creating “distortions” by masquerading “foreign religions” as “local religions by appropriating (more correctly, stealing) their way of worship and religious symbols.”

Haindava noted that the sari is a “Hindu dress worn by Hindu women. The white sari with a red border is used by women of the Sarna community on auspicious occasion[s],” adding that Christian missionaries are attempting similar practices in Kerala. “Should we permit such degradation of our religion?” Haindava asked rhetorically. “These are the [same] people who derided our religion, culture, rituals as mythology and superstition, why are they [seeking to] to imitate it?”

A commenter on the Haindava website named S. Manoharan thundered that: “All Hindus should understand that conversion to foreign religions and praying to foreigners does not give any spiritual satisfaction.” Another commenter named Ravi Nair opined that Evangelical Christians have been using deceptive conversion techniques in Latin America, Africa and in India for centuries. “The after-effects of coercive and deceptive religious conversion [are] disastrous,” he wrote. “Although coercive religious conversion of Hindus has deep historical roots, recent deceptive and cunning strategy poses serious political, social and psychological problems. In this era of globalization, evangelists with unlimited funds use sophisticated, deceptive, psychological mind manipulation techniques to lure, brainwash, and convert innocent people, Once they are converted, they are abandoned for rot. In India, the Vatican and evangelical groups use them as political pawn.”

Nair added that the sudden appearance of a sari-draped Mother Mary is a “manipulation technique.” “These missionaries are criminals with big ego,” he indicated. “They should be detained, arrested, and a force continuum shall be applied until they leave India with their trick. These conversion thief act without fear, shame, guilt, or remorse for a bowl of chicken soup from their alien slave masters. They should be stopped to save India.”