University of Leicester eBulletin

Faith and Freedom in India - The Christian Predicament

May 2003
No 122

A leading Indian academic is to address issues of religious exclusion, discrimination and persecution at a free public lecture to be held at the University of Leicester.

Dr S M Michael will focus on the Christian minority community in India - one of the oldest religious communities in the country.

He will deliver the seventh Geza Vermes Lecture in the History of Religions which is hosted by the Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism at the University of Leicester.

Dr Michael, a prominent sociologist, will speak on the theme of The Christian Community in India: History and Present Predicament. The lecture takes place on Monday, May 12 at 5.30pm in the Ken Edwards Building.

Dr Michael said: "Although one of the oldest religious communities in India (the Syrian Christian community was supposedly founded at Kerala in 52 CE by St Thomas), the Christians are not particularly numerous, representing some 2.18 per cent of the population according to the 2001 census in a country of more than 1 billion people.

"The Christian community has a long tradition of social, health and educational work among the poorest of India's citizens. It is estimated that some 60 per cent of the Christians in India are Dalits, or 'untouchables', the lowest of the low in a caste-ridden society.

"Increasingly in recent times, an upper-caste reaction has taken place against alleged 'inducements' to conversion by Christians. As a consequence, four states, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, the last two respectively in October 2002 and March 2003, have passed anti-conversion legislation. This is viewed with great concern by several of the minority groups in India, but particularly by the Christians who in Gujarat have also been subject to a separate census.

"Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is a signatory, states that everyone has the right to change his / her religion (Article 18: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.') This is now denied in certain states in India. There have also been cases of the murder of priests and the burning of churches. The threat to human rights in India, to the religious minorities in general and to the Christian community specifically, is perceived as significant."

Professor Richard Bonney, Director of the Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism, comments: "This lecture is particularly timely. One section of opinion in India, a small but well organized and vocal section of opinion, seeks to portray the Christian and Muslim communities as somehow 'un-Indian' because (unlike Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) their religious traditions originated outside the Indian sub-continent.

"The concept of 'non-Indian religionists' is a particularly unfortunate and even dangerous one which carries an explicit threat to the Indian Constitution and specifically to article 25(1), which grants all persons freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate their faith. Dr Michael's public lecture will demonstrate that allegations of a threat to India's cultural unity posed by Christians are misplaced, while the Christian commitment to educational and social improvement for all peoples remains a potent challenge to those who wish to see the perpetuation of a caste-based society."

        Dr S M Michael is Reader in Sociology at the University of Mumbai. His specialisation is in the areas of Social movements, the Sociology of religion, Dalit Sociology and Anthropological Theory. He has published The cultural context of evangelization in India (Pune, 1980); Anthropology of conversion in India (Mumbai, 1998); Culture and urbanization (New Delhi, 1999); Dalits in modern India: vision and values (New Delhi, 1999); and Untouchable: Dalits in modern India (Boulder, Colorado, 1999) as well as numerous articles.

NOTE TO NEWSDESK:

For further details, photocall or interviews contact Ms Gill Hawkes at inparel@le.ac.uk, 0116 223 1899; or Revd Professor Richard Bonney, Director of the Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism, 0116 2125677 or 0774 0944269.

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