by Monte Sahlin

By AT News Team, September 9, 2014
Updated September 30

A group of local residents in the rural village of Asroi, 110 miles south of New Delhi, India, left the Adventist Church and returned to the Hindu religion in a "purification ceremony" two weeks ago. The incident has resulted in media coverage in India and complaints about "forced reconversion by Hindu fundamentalists," as well as a story published by a Catholic news service that blamed the Adventist Church for not meeting the needs of those involved.

"A number of Christian community leaders suspected the conversions had been carried out by the pro-Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghthe" (RSS), reported the Ecumenical News service. Adventist leaders in the region "have appealed to Indian authorities to investigate the possible forced reconversion," stated the Adventist News Network (ANN), the denomination's official news service.

Forced conversions are illegal in India. "We have made a petition to the local civic authority and to … higher levels for an inquiry," ANN quoted Pastor T. P. Kurian, communication director for the Southern Asia Division of the Adventist denomination.

A team of four Adventist ministers visited the village last week, according to ANN. They "found no evidence that the church [building] had been disturbed" despite reports in the news media in India stating that the Christian cross had been replaced by an idol of the Hindu god Shiva, including a photo of two men holding a poster of Shiva.

"The idol of Shiva was not found there, and the church [building] has not been turned into a [Hindu] temple," the team's report was quoted by ANN. "The church building is kept under police surveillance."

The history of the Asroi Seventh-day Adventist Church as recounted by ANN is that in 2001 a total of 33 villagers became Adventists. "Attendance dipped in the following years [and] two families stopped attending in 2007, leaving 20 people at Sabbath services. Only five to seven people were attending regularly" when recent events unfolded in the last couple of weeks.

The story published by UCA News, the Catholic news service in India, on Friday (September 5) said that the group claimed that they were not pressured by Hindu fundamentalists. "Instead they blamed neglect by their church, the Seventh Day Adventists, for their decision to convert." The story quotes a 30-year-old man named Ram Pal. He says that the group had been promised by the Adventist evangelist that they would be able to move out of the social prejudice against them as low-caste "untouchables" if they became Christians and increase their incAome, get education for their children and access to health care. After a number of years these outcomes had not developed, so the group met and decided to go back to being Hindu.

Not only were they still seen as low-caste in social status, they were no longer eligible for specific government benefits that are provided to low-caste Hindus, according to UCA News. "Pal said that despite becoming Christians, they had been following Hindu traditions in their homes for quite some time."

UCA News also quotes a Seventh-day Adventist pastor named Habil Gyan. Adventist Today could not confirm that a person by this name is credentialed as a pastor by the denomination and one statement in the UCA News story really undermines its credibility; "Gyan said the church used to host Sunday Mass regularly." It is highly unlikely that an Adventist minister would make such a statement, although it is possible that the reporter totally misunderstood what was said.

The story does reveal the difficulties of Adventist evangelism and church planting in a complex social and religious context such as exists in India. "This may be an example of the old missionary problem of 'rice Christians.' It sounds like it may be possible," a veteran Adventist administrator told Adventist Today. "Rice Christians" is a reference to a time in the 19th century when there was famine in China and Christian missionaries distributed relief supplies of food to converts. For a period of time there were many conversions, then when the famine subsided, many people dropped out of the churches. This is a story often referenced in missiology textbooks.

Additional Information on September 30

A report from a commission appointed to investigate the situation in Asroi said "claims of forced reconversion" to the Hindu faith "are untrue and that members reconverted of their own free will because of little support" from pastoral care and leadership, according to a bulletin from ANN. "There seems very little attention [was] paid to these laity since the inception of the church in 2005." Leaders in the denomination's Southern Asia Division appointed the commission and concluded that better work must be done with new members who join the Adventist movement through evangelism and church planting.