A well educated British couple with young children, they left London two years ago to teach missionary work in some of India’s poorest states, such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Orissa.
Last week Madhya Pradesh became the latest state to pass an anti-religious conversion bill that could leave Christian missionaries open to criminal charges. Leaders of India’s 26m Christians say the bill is an attempt to intimidate and persecute them, while increasing votes for the Hindu nationalist BJP party. Under its provisions missionaries and their converts face up to three years in jail if they do not notify a magistrate of their intentions.
Christian leaders also fear the initiative will encourage attacks against them. India’s National Commission for Minorities has voiced concern about incidents in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in which orphanages and schools have been targeted.
Last month police in Madhya Pradesh raided a Bible study group and arrested worshippers after complaints that they were converting Hindus. Nuns have been raped and several priests have been murdered in the past seven years. Last year 11 members of a Hindu mob that burnt an Australian missionary and his two young sons to death as they slept had their convictions overturned.
Hindu fundamentalists claim missionaries, mostly American and South Korean, prey on the ignorance of lower castes and persuade them to turn against their culture. The missionaries say they provide education and healthcare and teach the Bible to untouchables whose own religion treats them as outcasts.
“In the past 10 years Christianity has taken off in north India. Dalits (untouchables) are asking, ‘What has Hinduism done for us?’” said Richard, who asked for his name and that of his wife to be changed. “We’re authentic followers of Jesus in a country with a range of ideas, but where one section is antagonistic towards all non-Hindus. I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong.”
He said he did not believe missionaries had forced anyone to convert, but acknowledged there were problems with some Indian missionaries who were telling tribesmen that God would heal their illnesses.
Richard and Julia are not allowed to work legally as missionaries in India because of visa restrictions, but Raju Matthew, a British neuro-physiologist, and his wife Kate operate freely because he has an Indian passport. Matthew has been targeted by Hindu nationalists and was recently acquitted of making forced conversions after a two-year legal battle.
A spokesman for the Madhya Pradesh government denied the bill was intended to stop conversions, saying it was to protect people being coerced into changing religion. “We had some complaints and we have to enforce the law,” he said.