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October 22, 1999
For Christ's Sake...
As millions of Hindus across the world get ready for the festival of lights, a powerful Christian denomination in America has launched a special prayer book to dispel the darkness that the group says Hindus live under.
"Pray that the Hindus who celebrate the festival of lights would become aware of the darkness in their hearts that no lamp can dispel," the book published by the Southern Baptists exhorts.
The 16-page book, and the concomitant statements about Satanism in India has angered and disturbed Hindus across America, with one community leader saying that books such as this could lead to riots in India.
Last month many Jewish leaders had denounced the denomination's efforts to pray for their conversion to Christianity.
In that instance too, the Southern Baptists, the second-largest Christian denomination in the country, launched a conversion movement during a Jewish religious festival.
Since its organization in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Convention has grown to 15.8 million members who worship in more than 40,000 churches in the United States. Southern Baptists sponsor about 5,000 home missionaries in the United States, Canada, Guam and the Caribbean, and have more than 4,000 missionaries in 126 nations.
"We want the whole world to awaken to Christ. We are not just targeting Hindus. We are trying to reach them because they encompass a large number of the people in the world," said Wendy Norvelle, a spokesperson for the organization.
Norvelle was unapologetic of the distribution of the prayer book to its 40,000 churches. The book is being sent out this week.
"We believe we have earned the right to convert everyone. The book teaches our churches about Hinduism and how they can be reached," Norvelle said. Norvelle admitted that the timing of the release of the prayer book was carefully planned.
"During a festive and holy time, people are aware and open to the idea of god. We wanted to get the knowledge to them at the time that they are most aware," Norvelle said.
The description of Hinduism in the book from the very first sentence has outraged Hindus.
"More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism..."
Dr Suresh Gupta, the president of the Durga Temple in Fairfax, Virginia, said:
"Hinduism is a way of life. It is something that we practice every minute of the day. We just can't give it up and take on another religion.
"It is a way of life that believes in doing good deeds, respecting elders, propagating good values, which is lacking in this country."
The guide for the conversion of the Hindus is the third in the series of publications produced by the International Mission Board in Richmond, Virginia. A book has been published on Muslims too several years ago. A fourth prayer guide on Buddhism will be released next year. They are planning one on Sikhism too.
The idea of reaching out to other Indian religious communities annoys Gupta and many others.
"Don't they have enough Christians to convert? Don't they have anything to do? Why else are they trying these ridiculous, absurd tactics?" said Gupta, who describes himself as a staunch Hindu.
"I have respect for all other religions. I don't go churches and ask them to convert to Hinduism. They should leave us alone, as we don't interfere with them," said Gupta, who added that his outspokenness on the subject in a recent article has prompted congratulatory calls from the Indian embassy and others in the community.
In an internal memorandum sent to its church leaders, Randy Sprinkle, the director of the organization's prayer strategy office, wrote, "Hindus believe that life is an endless cycle of reincarnation and appeasement of the gods. They know little or nothing of God and His great saving love for them in The Savior, Jesus Christ..."
While some Hindus agreed that conversion was a freedom in any free society, they resented the tone, saying the words used in the book were terribly offensive.
"Have these Baptists read what some of the most influential American and British, German and French thinkers have to say about Hinduism," asked Deepan Bajwa, a student in New York. "I'm sure that many Christians will be embarrassed by the thoughts that have gone into this book."
"It's very offensive. It's all nonsense. We don't stand for darkness. We stand for peace, harmony and good," said Kishan Vij, former president of the Durga temple. "When Hindus hear this, there will be riots, especially if this continues."
Norvelle says she was puzzled at the backlash, adding that no church has reported any Hindu conversions following the publication of the book.
"It's unfortunate that this has become so controversial. All we ask that people be open to the word of god, [Christ]" Norvelle said.
Vij believes that Hindus were deliberately targeted.
"Traditionally, Hindus have had a low profile in this country. It would have been better if we were left alone," he said.
Vij is amused at the idea of the Baptists reaching out to Sikhs.
"They are much more aggressive than Hindus, historically. I would like to see them [the Baptists] try that," he said.
Norvelle said the organization will try to recruit anyone, even those who have no god or religion.
The organization also said in its memo that "Interest in Hindus may be heightened by the persecution many Christians experience in India."
The prayer book describes Diwali, as the "festival of light, circle of darkness". It appeals to the churches to "ask god to show Hindus that their worship and prayer and prayer to the gods ultimately are futile because these... are 330 million gods and goddesses created by the imagination of men and women searching for a source of truth and strength."
The book also gives descriptions of cities in India: "Satan has retained his hold on Calcutta through Kali and other gods and goddesses. It is time for Christ's salvation to come to Calcutta."
On Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India: "A Bangalore Hindu will visit a neighborhood shrine or temple, worshipping the god favored at that place as well as special plants and animals. Many... have a picture of Jesus in their home. To them, he is like a good-luck charm, or just another unknown god."
Bombay becomes a "a city of spiritual darkness... The capital for underworld activities."
The ritualistic bathing in the Ganges gets attention:
"Bathing in its dull green water is thought to have the power to wash away sins and to enable the worshipper escape the cycle of endless reincarnation... The majority continue to seek salvation in the polluted waters of the Ganges..."
Sprinkle was quoted in The Washington Post as saying:
"If I had a Hindu sitting right here at my desk, I would apologize if I had been offensive. Certainly god's love is not meant to be offensive."
"If I had you sitting here, I would not want to convert you into a Hindu. I would want you to live a good life."
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