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Christianity in India

Authentic Indian religion or a Western import? Christianity came to India in two main periods: the first century missionary activity of Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, and the Western missionary activity from 1500 to 1975. Today there are about 27 million Christians in India, nearly the total population of Canada.

This large community represents less than three percent of the total population of India.

Missionaries came to India in response to famine and poverty. People who came to faith were frequently put out of their own communities with no place to go but to the mission. Many children were orphaned by famine and they also became dependent on the mission. One mission in the 1930s reported that 80 percent of their converts were financially dependent on the mission. These factors removed the converts from their own culture. They became strangers in their own land. These new Christians were perceived as giving allegiance to a foreign land and culture. A pastor related that a tribal person came to him and said, “I have cut my hair and put on long trousers. What else do I have to do to be a Christian?”

Indian Christians in society
India, which is 83 percent Hindu, is a country of minorities, with 180 million Muslims, 70 million tribal people, 60 million Sikhs and uncounted millions of others. Each of these groups represents a potential voting block in India’s democracy. However, Christians are not in significant numbers to be catered to by the national politicians.

Christians in India are discriminated against in certain government programs. The government has a program of reservations for jobs and university education. This program gives preference to people of the lower castes and those below caste. To qualify for these benefits, applicants must state their caste origin. Christians, having denounced caste, are unable to do this. Yet many Christians come from the very groups for whom these programs were devised. This represents a major loss to these people struggling for education and jobs.

Government jobs are widely sought and highly valued. The perception of many Christians is that they do not have an equal opportunity for these jobs and subsequent promotions. On the other hand, some Christians benefit by being perceived as more honest, resulting in more rapid promotions.

Despite minority status, Christians are seen as leaders in medical care and education. This reflects the emphasis of many foreign missions. There are disproportionately more Christian doctors and nurses compared to the general population. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of the nurses in India are Christian. The quality of medical care and education in Christian institutions is believed to be higher than that available through government institutions.

Christianity in India: north vs. south
Indians concede that the conditions for Christians in the south differ from the north. Christians in the north go about their business quietly. The programs of some churches appear to be aimed at survival more than an open involvement in the larger community. One church leader in the south said, “To be Christian in the north means Western clothes, speaking English and eating beef. In the south Christians are part of the fabric of society. We have always been here.”

Christians in southern India date their origins back to the landing of Thomas on their shores. Thomas established churches throughout southern India. Catholic missionaries came in 1505 with Vasco de Gama and instituted changes including penance, prayers for the dead and the confessional. Two hundred years later church leaders became aware of their history though the help of British missionaries.

Subsequently a reform movement started from within the church. These reforms represent a return to the original tenets of the church prior to 1600. Southern Christians have a strong sense of continuity from the first century to the present. Their liturgy is 2000 years old. Members are happy to be known as part of the church.

There is a strong lay movement. Since government workers are required to retire at age 55, an impressive amount of social work is done by lay members of the church.

The church in India is a mosaic of places where the church is thriving and places where it is merely surviving. Christians face the future with caution of persecution, and hope in a loving God.

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