June 18, 2024

After the surreptitious and sinister activities of the Swedish and German preachers came to light this week, chief minister Sarma is learnt to have ordered a full-scale scrutiny of all foreigners who have come to Assam on tourist visas.

A number of Christians from Western nations have been working silently under the radar in Assam for many years now to convert tribals and indigeous communities of the state to Christianty.

This has come to light in a dramatic fashion after it was discovered that many radical Islamist clerics from Bangladesh had been coming to Assam on tourist visas to preach Salafi Islam to the lakhs of Bangladesh-origin Muslim migrants in the state.

Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma ordered an intense scrutiny of all foreign nationals who have come into Assam and their activities.

“While carrying out this scrutiny, we discovered that many Chrsitian tourists from Western countries are visiting even remote areas in central and upper Assam which are not tourist destinations. That raised our suspicions and we started discreetly probing their movements and activities,” a top police officer who did not want to be named told Swarajya from Guwahati.

The first batch of such proselytisers who were engaging in preaching Christianity and converting tribals in the tea gardens and other indigenous communities were detected earlier this week.

The Assam Police detained three Swedish nationals Wednesday (26 October) while they were preaching at a church at Namrup in Dibrugarh district. The trio–identified as Marcus Arne Henrik Bloom, Hannah Mikaela Bloom and Susana Elisabeth Hakanason–were caught red-handed preaching at the church and urging locals gathered there to convert to Christianity.

“They had come to Assam on tourist visas and indulging in religious activities was a blatant violation of their visa conditions. This is a serious violation of Section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act (read this) and they were fined (US $ 500 each) and then deported back to Sweden,” the officer said.

The three Swedish nationals had landed in India on 19 October and reached Assam on 24 October. Their trip to Assam had been sponsored by two Christian missionary bodies: United Churches Fellowship and Bless Assam Mission Network.

Dibrugarh district police chief Shwetank Mishra said that the police have collected video and photographic evidence of the “missionary activities” of the three Swedish nationals.

The three were found asking tribals who work in tea gardens and some members of an indigenous community of Assam to convert to Christianity and were promising them material and other benefits.

On Friday (8 October), the Assam Police detained a group of seven German tourists who were found to have gone to various remote areas of the state to preach Christianity. The seven had gone to Tinsukia, Margherita and Karbi Anglong and delivered sermons to tribals in those areas.

They were scheduled to travel to Tezpur Saturday (29 October) to participate in another evangelical camp.

The seven, identified as Christian Reiser, Michael Erich Schaper, Merten Asmus, Cornelia Von Oneimb, Hinrich Luppen-Von Oneimb, Christa Olearius, and Lisa Aimee Bloem, had cleverly made a resort in Kaziranga their base.

“They had done that since Kaziranga is a prime tourist destination and they hoped that they would be able to pass themselves off as tourists while staying there,” said a district police officer.

The seven had been in Assam since 21 October. The police are gathering evidence of their evangelical activities.

The tip of the iceberg:

What has been detected so far is but just the tip of the iceberg. A huge number of tourists from Western countries have been visiting Assam regularly on tourist visas and preaching Christianity to lure gullible people and convert them to that religion.

According to organisations representing indigenous faiths and communities of Assam, there has been a quantum leap in the arrival of such Western tourists to Assam since 2005.

That coincided with the advent of the UPA government at the Centre. A huge number of such ‘tourists’, mainly from the Scandinavian countries and also Germany and the USA, have been coming to Assam to preach Christianity and carry out conversions.

Their targets have been the tribal community in the tea gardens of the state and the other indigenous communities like Karbis, Dimasas, Bodos, Rabhas, Misings and Sonowals.

“These preachers are brought in by some Church bodies. They preach in churches and among local communities, mostly very informally. Special camps are also organised regularly and tribals and members of indigenous communities invited. These ‘tourists’ propagate Christianity while running down indigenous faiths. They (the foreign missionaries) offer salvation and material benefits, including free education and medical care, to the gullible folks,” said Subhas Rabha, a lawyer who is in the forefront of a fledgling anti-conversion movement.

The reason European or white-skinned Christians are invited is because it is easy to dupe and lure away gullible tribals and other communities through such white-skinned people. “A sermon and an appeal to convert delivered by a white-skinned man or woman is much more powerful than a similar appeal by a person of any other ethnicity or colour,” explained Rabha.

Also, it is easier to get funds from cash-rich Christian missionary and evangelical bodies based in the West if the members of such bodies are involved in conversions.

There have been many instances of local religious and cultural organisations protesting the increasing activities of such preachers and proselytisers since 2004.

But such protests not only went unheeded, they were also suppressed, at times brutally, at the behest of the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA Government.

One such instance which was reported in this article published in Swarajya is exemplary.

In 2006, an evangelical camp was planned by Catholic missionaries from Nagaland to convert the local people of Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam.

Many priests and even some Naga politicians had come down to Majuli.

Some xatradhikars (heads of xatras which are Vaishnavite institutions) petitioned the district administration, which disallowed the evangelical camp.

The Catholics tried to hold it forcibly, following which there was a mild lathi charge on them.

That night, the deputy commissioner—the administrative head of the district–received a call from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) asking for an explanation and ordering him to grant permission to hold the camp.

The district administration held firm because of the strong backing of the influential xatradhikars and indigenous Assamese people and bodies.

Ultimately, the missionaries packed their bags and left. But the point is that the deputy commissioner received a call from the powerful PMO asking him to allow the camp.

Since 2014, when the BJP-led NDA came to power at the Centre, the Christian missionaries went silent but continued to work assiduously to harvest souls. The defeat of the Congress in Assam in 2016 and the BJP coming to power in the state dealt a further blow to them.

“But they have been working undeterred and very silently. They hold preaching camps and faith-healing camps very silently and mostly with permission from local authorities. But they do not disclose the involvement of foreign preachers in such proselytising activities,” said a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which has been keeping a watch on the activities of Christian evangelical bodies.

Preachers and proselytisers on tourist visas

This is a comparatively new phenomenon and started since 2014 when the NDA came to power at the Centre.

The NDA government clamped down on foreign missionaries and brought their activities under the scanner. Many restrictions were also placed on flow of foreign funds to missionary bodies.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) under Amit Shah started discouraging the grant of missionary visas.

Under the current regulations, only pre-approved Christian bodies can get preachers from other countries to come to India on missionary visas for a specific period of time.

Also, the activities of such missionaries have to be disclosed in detail in advance and a strict watch is kept on them.

That is why, in order to avoid disclosure and close watch on their activities, Christian preachers and proselytisers from Western nations have been coming to Assam on tourist visas.

After the surreptitious and sinister activities of the Swedish and German preachers came to light this week, chief minister Sarma is learnt to have ordered a full-scale scrutiny of all foreigners who have come to Assam on tourist visas.

The state police have been asked to mount strict vigil on all such foreign ‘tourists’ and book anyone found to be indulging in non-tourist activities.

But, points out the VHP leader, such vigil has to be continuous and the state cannot afford to let its guard down.

“These proselytisers always lurk in the shadows like vultures and wait for the first opportunity to strike. They will wait for the current vigil to slacken with time and resume their nefarious activities,” he said.

(Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.)




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