Will India´s Changing of the Guard Affect Christian Ministries?

May 22, 2014

Over 75 percent of India´s 1.2 billion citizens are Hindu. The election of Narendra Modi, the first hardline Hindu nationalist to serve as prime minister, has raised concerns for the potential impact on minority religions.

As India´s newly elected prime minister prepares to take the oath of office Monday, indigenous Christian ministries remain cautiously optimistic that they will be able to continue their evangelistic outreach without government interference.

Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) was declared the runaway winner May 16. His landslide victory over opponent Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party brought to a close more than six decades of dominance by the Nehru-Gandhi family. The BJP also won a majority of the seats in Parliament.

Because Modi will be the first hardline Hindu nationalist to lead the country, both religious and secular media have raised questions regarding how the new government might reshape India´s treatment of other faiths—namely Christianity.

“The BJP has never hidden its preference to run as a Hindu nationalistic party. They are clearly religiously oriented. Obviously that is somewhat of a concern for Christians in India,” said Sarla Mahara, the South Asia director for Christian Aid Mission.

During a visit to India in March, Mahara said several ministry leaders voiced concerns over the potential impact the BJP could have on their evangelistic work, particularly in rural areas of the country.

India is a multi-party democracy, and the national constitution provides for the religious freedom of its 1.2 billion citizens, of which 75 percent are Hindu. However, persecution is an ongoing reality in many areas where local authorities impose their own set of criteria for approved religious activity. In states like Rajasthan or Gujarat where evangelism is already difficult, officials could exert even more pressure on ministries.

“I don´t think India´s constitution is going to be amended anytime soon, and I don´t think changes will be handed down from the central government, but I do think we could see changes on the state level,” surmised Mahara. “That´s where they will tighten their fists. I think local authorities will see an ally in Modi, and they will take advantage of the situation and make life more challenging for Christians.”

Although India guarantees religious freedom according to its constitution, persecution remains prevalent in rural areas where local officials impose their own restrictions on minority faiths.

Anti-conversion legislation already exists in some Indian states. However, these laws only make conversion illegal when it takes place through coercion or fraud. When individuals plan to change their religion, they are required to inform local authorities that they are intending to do so, and that the decision is of their own volition, according to Mahara.

Proper enforcement of the laws, on the other hand, is not a cut and dried matter. Seeking to crackdown on evangelistic work, offended Hindus have in some cases brought false accusations of forced conversion against Christians.

Mahara said the ministry leaders she talked to are committed to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with their people, no matter what happens politically.

“They all told me, ‘We know God is in control. No matter which political party is in power, our ministry will not be deterred or stopped. Regardless of whether there is persecution or not, this is our mandate from the Lord. We will go forward with what He has called us to do.’”

Earning a hearing for the gospel

Christian Aid assists more than 200 ministries throughout India that are involved in church planting, discipleship, community development, and disaster relief. Many of these groups work primarily among lower castes and unreached tribal peoples in remote areas where persecution is the most intense.

Vocational projects, ranging from agricultural programs to sewing centers to a bicycle repair shop, provide outreach opportunities and meet practical needs. In addition to boosting local economies, the projects help the ministries themselves generate income to support their work.

One ministry that reaches out to a tribal group in northern India has asked Christian Aid for assistance to expand its dairy cow farm in one rural village. Income from the dairy operation would provide jobs, a source of milk for children, and the ability to generate cooking gas and sell fertilizer in the marketplace. The project would also enable the ministry to pay for the bulk of the expenses for its children´s home and Christian school.

Christian Aid Mission helps indigenous mission groups develop vocational projects that benefit the local community and help support ministry programs.

A few young believers from this tribe began meeting together as a small home church in 1992. Burdened by a desire to share the message of Christ´s love with their own people, they started this now flourishing ministry that impacts remote villages through evangelistic programs, literacy education, and humanitarian initiatives.

The efforts of indigenous groups like theirs have proven very effective in taking the gospel to places where Western missionaries are not permitted. Its colonial history remains a sore spot in the minds of many Indians, who associate Christianity with unwelcomed foreign influence. With a Hindu nationalist at the helm, there are legitimate concerns that Christians and other religious minorities could face heightened opposition.

“Again, no one knows at this point whether or not these things will happen. Lord willing, the ministries we support will have an open window for a long period of time,” said Mahara. “If changes do occur, they won´t happen overnight, and that will give gospel workers time to be prepared and to look ahead.”

For now, Mahara asked Christians around the world to join in prayer for India´s leadership and for the indigenous missionaries and ministries that are reaping an abundant spiritual harvest in their country.

“Pray that they will have the courage to follow the vision God has given them. Persecution is part of the package for those who serve in ministry,” she said. “Political change is challenging, yes, but pray that believers will face these challenges with deep faith and spiritual wisdom, and that they will continue to love their own people, so that hearts can be won even in the midst of persecution.”