By Sandhya Jain
Christian missionaries have added a new dimension to the national debate over conversions with their objections to an unexpected Judaic threat to their flock in the north-eastern states of Mizoram and Manipur. With the century-old Church under threat of a mass exodus, Christian theologians are working overtime to counter the growing affinity between some Mizo and Kuki tribes with Judaism (Deccan Herald, April 22, 2005).
Most Mizos were converted to Christianity in the decades preceding Independence. Sometime in the 1970s, however, some members of the tribes noticed that their indigenous customs and rituals closely matched those of the Jews. Both Mizos and Kukis, for instance, practice the eighth-day circumcision, levirate marriages, altar sacrifices and Sabbath, all of which are very Jewish traditions. Their suspicion that they might be of Jewish origin was substantiated by Israel'sRabbi Eliahu Avichail, who runs the Jerusalem-based Amishav, an organisation devoted to tracing and helping descendants of Israel'sTen Lost Tribes to return to the ?Holy Land?, a right guaranteed to every Jew under the Israeli Constitution.
Amishav claims Mizos and Kukis descend from the tribe of Manasseh, which was exiled from Israel'snorthern kingdom after the Assyrian invasion in 721 b.c., along with nine other tribes. The claims have led to Mizos and Kukis designating themselves as ?Bnei Menashe? or sons of Manasseh, the younger son of Joseph and father of one of the ten lost tribes of Biblical Israel. Seven thousand have re-converted to their ?original? Judaic faith and Amishav even helped 800 to migrate to Israel. The migration was halted in 2003 when Israel'sInterior Ministry expressed doubts about their Jewish origins, but the Chief Rabbinate (apex religious body) authenticated the claims of the Bnei Menashe on March 30, 2005.
Christian leaders are perturbed over the exodus from Christianity to Judaism, claiming this will ?destroy the social fabric of both the tribes.? Though missionaries have consistently showed contempt for similar concerns of Hindu organisations, Dr P.C. Biaksiama of the Christian Research Centre in Aizawl, Rev. Chuauthuama of the Aizawl Theological College and Rev. Colney of the Mizoram Presbyterian Church Synod now demand a social movement against conversions.
Last month, 300 pastors discussed the threat and lambasted conversion to Judaism as the work of Satan. But the Bnei Menashe registered a growth of over 50 per cent in the past few years in Mizoram alone.
Dr Biaksiama has gone so far as to say that not only the Church, but the Central and state governments should recognise the arrival of the Rabbis as a ?religious and cultural invasion?. In a language akin to that of so-called Hindu fundamentalists, the Christian theologian argues that it is only the promise of ?better living standards? in Israel that is luring many tribals to join the Bnei Menashe. Perhaps this is a tacit admission that these tribes have failed to substantially improve their lot after abandoning their traditional gods and customs and adopting the religion of the erstwhile colonial masters.
Dr Biaksiama warns that ?mass conversion by foreign priests will pose a threat not only to the region'ssocial stability, but also to national security.? People will cease to be loyal to the nation as they will become eligible for a foreign citizenship. Last month, 300 pastors discussed the threat and lambasted conversion to Judaism as the work of Satan. But the Bnei Menashe registered a growth of over 50 per cent in the past few years in Mizoram alone, which has a population of barely nine lakhs (Hindustan Times, May 7, 2005).
When not at the receiving end, however, Christian missionaries sing a different tune. In Sri Lanka, US-backed evangelicals have succeeded in getting the United Nations to intervene in the matter of the island'sproposed anti-conversion Bill, mooted by the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party and the Minister of Buddhist Affairs. The Bill is a sequel to the offence caused by foreign missionaries to the native communities in the wake of the tsunami.
Evangelists, however, managed to get UN special envoy, Asma Jehangir of Pakistan, who represents the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), to visit Sri Lanka and assess the status of freedom of religion there. Although the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) defines ?Freedom of Religion? as the ?freedom to pray and practice?, missionaries always stretch this to mean ?freedom to convert?. They are now working overtime to dub the anti-conversion legislation as a violation of human rights. It remains to be seen how the Sri Lanka government tackles this menace.
It is high time the Church acknowledged that its conversion activities are perceived as an act of cultural aggression and cause deep resentment among target communities. Only last week, residents of Mangal-warapete village near Mysore, Karnataka, were rattled at Church authorities preaching hatred against Hindus as worshippers of Satan. Provoked by the pastor of the Harvest India Church, established by American missionaries, the entire village revolted and ransacked the Church.
Christian missionaries are insensitive to the hurt caused by their ?hate? speech and to the misgivings caused by their close links with foreign missionary bodies. In Nepal, where it is a crime to convert minors, a Christian couple was arrested on April 27, 2005 for precisely this offence. Babu and Sabitri Varghese were running a school and orphanage in Birganj city with support from an American missionary charity, Equip Nepal.