CHRISTIANS IN INDIA

CHRISTIANS IN INDIA


Christians in Nagaland, which has one of the highest concentration of Christians in India

There are about 30 million Christians in India. Making up roughly three percent of the population, they make up the third largest religious group in India after Hindus and Muslims. The Indian Christian community includes about 17 million Catholics and 11 million Protestants.

Many Christians are tribals or members of lower castes such as the Dalits (Untouchables). Many Christians live in the so called "tribal belt," which extends across the center of India from Pakistan in the west to Bangladesh and Myanmar in the east. Mizoram, India's only predominately Christian state, is in northwest India.

Christianity in some places has been adapted to Indian beliefs and concepts of spirituality. At Christian ashrams, priests wear Indian dress and engage in Hindu style rituals. Mass begins with the chants of "om," the sacred sound of the Vedas. Hindu prasad (consecrated fruits and sweetmeats) are consumed at communion. Some groups sing devotional songs that praise Jesus and Krishna and eat strictly vegetarian meals.

In some places Christians have more influence than their numbers would suggest because they have traditionally been more educated than the general population. Indian Christians tend to be urbanized and hold Western professions such as teachers, nurses bank clerks and civil servants.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Christian Denominations: Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory directory.nihov.org

Different Christian Groups in India

The total number of Christians in India according to the 1991 census was 19.6 million, or 2.3 percent of the population. About 13.8 million of these Christians were Roman Catholics, including 300,000 members of the Syro-Malankara Church. The remainder of Roman Catholics were under the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. In January 1993, after centuries of self-government, the 3.5-million-strong Latin-rite Syro-Malabar Church was raised to archepiscopate status as part of the Roman Catholic Church. In total, there were nineteen archbishops, 103 bishops, and about 15,000 priests in India in 1995. [Source: Library of Congress *]


percentage of Christians in Indian states

Most Protestant denominations are represented in India, the result of missionary activities throughout the country, starting with the onset of British rule. Most denominations, however, are almost exclusively staffed by Indians, and the role of foreign missionaries is limited. The largest Protestant denomination in the country is the Church of South India, since 1947 a union of Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, Methodist, and Anglican congregations with approximately 2.2 million members. A similar Church of North India has 1 million members. There are 473,000 Methodists, 425,000 Baptists, and about 1.3 million Lutherans. Orthodox churches of the Malankara and Malabar rites total 2 million and 700,000 members, respectively. *

All Christian churches have found the most fertile ground for expansion among Dalits, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribe groups (see Tribals, Minorities). During the twentieth century, the fastest growing Christian communities have been located in the northeast, among the Khasis, Mizos, Nagas, and other hill tribes. Christianity offers a non-Hindu mode of acculturation during a period when the state and modern economy have been radically transforming the life-styles of the hill peoples. Missionaries have led the way in the development of written languages and literature for many tribal groups. Christian churches have provided a focus for unity among different ethnic groups and have brought with them a variety of charitable services.

St. Thomas and Early History of Christianity in India

Although there is little evidence to back up the assertion, some people believe that Christ's apostle, St. Thomas, went to India. According to tradition he landed in A.D. 52 at Maliankara near Cranganore on the Malabar Coast of India. It is said he preached the gospels, traveled through southern Indian and converted many Hindu, including some upper-caste Brahmins. After evangelizing and performing miracles in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, he is believed to have been martyred in Madras and buried on the site of San Thomé Cathedral..


Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Saint Thomas is the famous "doubting Thomas" of the New Testament. He reportedly left Palestine for Asia after the crucifixion of Jesus with a mission to covert India's Jews. He is said have founded seven churches in Kerala. The present population of Syrian Christians claims to be descendant of the people that attended these churches. There are a number of other stories with connections to Christianity in India. Kashmiri Christians believe that Christ died in Srinagar. A synagogue in Cochin contains scrolls of the New Testament.

Christianity is believed to have been introduced to Kerala around the A.D. 4th century by Syrian merchants. Nestorian Christianity is believed to have been introduced by missionaries to same region in the 6th century. One of the first Europeans to reach India was Cosmmas Indicopleutes ("India Traveler"), a well traveled Christian mystic. He visited India in the 6th century. Members of the Syro-Malabar Church, an eastern branch of the Roman Catholic Church, adopted the Syriac liturgy dating from fourth century Antioch. They practiced what is also known as the Malabar rite until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century.

Syrian Christians thrived in Kerala under the liberal and tolerant rulers of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. Impressed by the behavior of these Christians, these rulers gave the Christian land to build churches and helped them in other ways. The Syrian Christians were an independent group and were supplied with bishops and religious guidance from the Eastern Orthodox Church in Antioch in Syria.

Christianity Under the Early Europeans

The Portuguese introduced Catholicism and brought Portuguese and Italian priests with them. Under Portuguese rule, many Indians were converted to Christianity. Great churches and cathedrals were built under the Portuguese. In 1557 Goa was became an archbishopric. Catholicism displaced Syrian Christianity a the dominant form of Christianity on the Malabar Coast. But when the Portuguese left the influence of the Catholic Church weakened and Syrian Christians were able ro reassert themselves in Kerala.


Palayur Church in Kerala, the oldest Christian church in India and one of the seven founded by Saint Thomas

The Portuguese attempted to latinize the Malabar rite, an action which, by the mid-sixteenth century, led to charges of heresy against the Syro-Malabar Church and a lengthy round of political machinations. By the middle of the next century, a schism occurred when the adherents of the Malankar rite (or Syro-Malankara Church) broke away from the Syro-Malabar Church. Fragmentation continued within the Syro-Malabar Church up through the early twentieth century when a large contingent left to join the Nestorian Church, which had had its own roots in India since the sixth or seventh century. By 1887, however, the leaders of the Syro-Malabar Church had reconciled with Rome, which formally recognized the legitimacy of the Malabar rite. The Syro-Malankara Church was reconciled with Rome in 1930 and, while retaining the Syriac liturgy, adopted the Malayalam language instead of the ancient Syriac language. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Throughout this period, foreign missionaries made numerous converts to Christianity. Early Roman Catholic missionaries, particularly the Portuguese, led by the Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier (1506-52), expanded from their bases on the west coast making many converts, especially among lower castes and outcastes. The miraculously undecayed body of Saint Francis Xavier is still on public view in a glass coffin at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa.

Saint Francis Xavier

The Spanish devoted more attention to Christianizing the local population than the Portuguese. St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary who devoted his life spreading Christianity in Asia, led the effort to convert local people on places controlled by the Portuguese. Known as the sainted Apostle of the Indies, he was born the youngest son of a Basque aristocrat. When he was 28 he helped found the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He arrived in Goa 1542 and buried many dead Portuguese voyagers in India. He went to Japan in 1549 and helped Christianity advance there very quickly, especially in southern Japan. He also went to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.


Saint Francis Xavier died in 1552 at the age of 46 on the island Sancian off Guangdong province in China in present-day Macau in China during a proselytizing mission. After he died his body was packed in lime and shipped to Goa. His body was buried and later exhumed by Jesuits who cut off his right arm and sent it to the Pope as a gift. What remained of the body was placed in a gold and glass coffin in Goa cathedral.

The coffin was opened once a year, on St, Xavier's feast day on December 3rd, in Goa cathedral until 1755 when the king f Portugal took control of the body and decided it could not be seen without his orders and was displayed to the public once every ten years.

Now the well preserved body is on view anytime through windows on the side of the coffin. The body is shriveled and shrunken and the skull is visible from the head but the saint's red hair is still largely in place. The arm is a relic in the Vatican. In 1949 it went on a world tour, beginning in Japan.

Missionaries in India

One consequence of the British sense of superiority was to open India to more aggressive missionary activity. The contributions of three missionaries based in Serampore (a Danish enclave in Bengal)— William Carey, Joshua Marshman, and William Ward— remained unequaled and have provided inspiration for future generations of their successors. The missionaries translated the Bible into the vernaculars, taught company officials local languages, and, after 1813, gained permission to proselytize in the company's territories. Although the actual number of converts remained negligible, except in rare instances when entire groups embraced Christianity, such as the Nayars in the south or the Nagas in the northeast, the missionary impact on India through publishing, schools, orphanages, vocational institutions, dispensaries, and hospitals was unmistakable. [Source: Library of Congress]


Missionary Hope Lee

By the end of the 18th century, Hindus and Muslims were no longer regarded merely as novelties, they were seen as natives—like American Indians—that needed to converted to Christianity. In 1813 an anti-slavery activist told the British Parliament that he hoped India would "exchange its dark and bloody superstition for the genial influence of Christian light and good." Early Britons looked upon India as a backward society that could be improved through education. After Darwin many Britons began looking upon Indians as racially inferior.[Source: Geoffrey C. Ward, Smithsonian magazine]

Missionaries that came to India in large numbers beginning in the early 1800's endured numerous hardships and had little success converting the local population. Upon arrival many went to their boat cabins and wept with shock and prayed for strength after seeing throngs of sweaty Indians naked except for their loincloths.

Missionaries were often expected to live out their lives abroad and they were discouraged from coming home even if they were fatally ill. "It is better that our missionaries should die on the field of battle," one missionary board warned, "than to return to camp in a wounded or disabled state."

Life of the Missionaries

Missionary women were often carried about in palanquins resting on the shoulders of a half dozen Indian servants and the men were pulled in covered carts drawn by teams of bullocks. The journey from Madras to Madurui took 20 days by palanquin. As the servants carried the women they chanted “She's not heavy, Putterum, Puuterum, Carry her softly, Puuterum, Putterum, Nice little lady, Puuterum, Putterum, Carry her gently.” [Source: Geoffrey C. Ward, Smithsonian magazine]


The primary activity of missionaries was setting up schools. They usually set up numerous primary schools and, if they were there long enough to get primary school graduates, a secondary school. Low caste parents sent their children to the missionary schools because there was no other way for them to get an education. Hindus sent their children to the secondary school to learn English so they had better chances of getting jobs. Many Christian converts were Untouchables. They had more to gain from converting to Christianity than other Hindus.

Missionaries had to protect themselves against snakes, scorpions, white ants, winged ants and bats. One missionary described a huge spider that made a home in his shoe. It "was nearly the size of the palm of my hand...olive brown and covered with a soft down.” Many people died of malaria and deaths at a rate of 60 a day from cholera was not uncommon in some cities.

The missionaries also had to put up wit dust storms, torrential monsoons and 130°F heat that lasted for weeks at a time. "Between the rising and setting of the sun," one missionary wrote, "a foreigner should not leave his house without the shelter of a carriage or palanquin or a thick umbrella."

Missionary View of the Indians

"View the gods of India," one missionary wrote, "false to their word, thievish, licentious, ambitious, murderous, all indeed that is repellent, malignant and vile...is it surprising that there is perjury, and injustice, and wickedness the land over? The Bible must supplant the narratives of their false divinities, their temples carved now with sculptures and paintings which crimson the face of modesty." [Source: Geoffrey C. Ward, Smithsonian magazine]

One missionary in Madurai in the 1830s described it as "a stronghold of debauchery. An influential and numerous priesthood dwell here...Tumultuous processions, wild and fantastic as the dreams of a maniac...pervade the city night and day, making idolaters drunk with excess of glare, noise and folly...all in barbarous taste." Missionaries were sometimes threatened with murder for maligning Hindu Gods.

In the19th century pounding and cleaning rice was "a constant employment among females." Street performers with trained monkeys were familiar sites and smiths spent hours beating gold. Irrigation pumps were powered by three men who were used as a counterweight. Some people earned money by mutilating themselves.

Christian Missionaries and Schools in India


missionary at a village Sunday School

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Protestant missionaries began to work throughout India, leading to the growth of Christian communities of many varieties. From 1850 to 1900 there was a great deal of Christian missionary activity in South Asia, involving members of a number of Protestant sects. Missionaries came from the United States and nearly every country in Europe. Some missionary groups achieved stunning successes. Nearly all the Mizos in northeastern India converted to Christianity due to the efforts of an obscure Welsh mission.

Christianity found a particularly receptive audience in India among dispossessed people such as the Dalits (untouchables), tribals and poor slum dwellers. Christian missionaries in India have been very active in helping lepers and other diseased people. They have opened schools and health clinics for rural and urban people. They are credited with setting up the first printing presses and first modern colleges in South Asia, boosting literacy and education for females. Indians have been attracted to Jesus because of his association with the poor and suffering.

Rather than forcing local people to accept Jesus as Westerners think of him, modern missionaries try to make Jesus fit into local traditions. In many churches and Christian ashrams, Christian have adopted the clothes and even some rituals of the Hindus. Over the years an effort has been made to train Indian priests and recruit European priests to act as supervisors. Today, both Catholic and Protestant churches are largely in the hands of South Asian bishops and archbishops. Today India is the largest source of Jesuits.

As of the early 2000s, Christian missions ran 16,500 schools and 6,500 hospitals in India. Many Indians who achieved great things attended Christian schools. Indira Gandhi, for example, graduated from a Catholic convent school. Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi went to a Christian school when her mother was a diplomat in New Delhi. Today, Muslim and Hindu families are willing to put up with a degree of Christian proselytizing as long as their children are also given a first-rate education in math, history and English.

Syrian Christians


Syrian Christians at a Cathedral Declaration

Syrian Christians are the largest group of Christians in India. There are about 6 million of them. They make up 94 percent of the Christians in Kerala, which in turn is about 20 percent Christian. The remainder of the Christians were descendants of Christians converted by European missionaries. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Syrian Christians live mostly in the Kerala and are centered around the Kerala town of Kottayam where followers have lived since the 4th century. They get the name from Syriac (classical form of Aramai), the language used of their liturgies. They are also know as Nazaranis (followers of Jesus of nazarene).

Syrian Christians speak Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala. They generally only marry other Syrian Christians. Some marriages are arranged. Cross-cousin marriage is generally not practiced. The nuclear family is the basic social unit and men have traditionally worked outside the house while women stayed at home.

Syrian Christians are often quickly recognizable by their Biblical names like Paul, Thomas, Andrew, Peter. Syrian Christian women have a little fan hanging out of the back of their blouse. In Kerala they are regarded as energetic, ambitious, entrepreneurial and devoted to higher education.

Book: God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy offers some interesting insights into life of Syrian Christians. On the early Syrian Christian settlers from Baghdad and Nineveh that came to India, Roy wrote: “They arrived in a boat and speed into Kerala like tea from a teabag.”

Syrian Christian Beliefs


Syrian Christian Church

Syrian Christians belong to different denominations, such as the Jacobite Syrian Church, Syrian Roman Catholic Church and Mar Thoma Syrian Church, and generally attend church on Sunday. They practice rituals similar to those of Orthodox Greeks and are led by the "Pope of Kottayam." Jacobite Syrians use the old Syriac language in their liturgies and regard the Patriarch of Antioch as their leader. Important celebrations include Lent, for 25 days before Christmas, and Easter week, with a particularly large gathering on Good Friday. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The dead are buried not cremated. Great effort is made to make sure a person dies at home with a priest reading last rites. After death the corpse is ritually washed and dressed up and placed in a room filed with lit candles. The funeral should take place within 24 hours after death and is usually accompanied by the singing of hymns. After the funeral, family and friends gather for a simple vegetarian meal.

Syrian Christians have been able to do as well as they have done by adapting to local traditions and Hindu customs. Incorporated into the caste system, they occupy a place just below Brahmin. equal to the rank of Nayars. The Syrian Christians regard themselves as being higher ranked than Catholics and generally don’t marry or even interact much with Christians converted by European missionaries.

Catholics and Protestants in India

There are an estimated 17 million Catholics in India (about 1.7 percent of the population). They have more influence than their numbers reflect because the run a large number of elite schools and hospitals. A Catholic education is so prized that "convent educated" is listed in matrimonial ads as virtue highly sought after by well-to-do families. The Catholic community in South India and Sri Lanka have grown considerably, not by winning new converts by avoiding family planning rules.


Catholic wedding in India

Catholic clergy in the United States, Canada and Europe are so overworked they have outsourced prayer request from parishioners to Catholic clergy in India. Priests in India have said the requests are typically accompanied by $5 or $10, which is many times more than they get at home.

The British introduced the Anglican religion. They and other Europeans introduced various Protestant faiths. In 1947 the year India achieved independence, the Church of South India, was created. The first unified Protestant church anywhere, it absorbed the former Anglican, Methodist and other Protestant sects. In 1970, the Protestant Church of North India was created.

Christians, Violence and Hindu Extremists

There is some hostility towards Indian Christians by Hindu nationalists. B.L Sharma, the leader of Vishwa Hindu Prishad, a powerful Hindu nationalist group, said. "We were slaves for 100 years and now we have opened our eyes. I demand that the government of India throw out these people who are out to convert Hindus and ruin or culture, language and attire. Sharma also declared there is a "Christian conspiracy to propagate their religion and wipe out Hinduism from this country" and offered a plan to "reconvert" Christians to Hinduism.

Hindu extremists have also attacked Christian schools as being fronts for forced conversions, especially of lower caste members, and attacked literacy campaigns as a Christian campaign to win converts. They have even attacked the Nobel committee of giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Mother Teresa and accused Christians of conspiring with the C.I.A. to undermine India.

In the late 1990s, after the Hindu nationalist came to power, there was a rash of violence and nasty talk directed at Christians. The number of reported attacked against Christians increased from 15 in 1997 to 108 in 1998, the year the Hindu nationalist BJP party came to power. Priests and missionaries were beat up and murdered; nuns were raped; churches were vandalized and burned down; graveyards were desecrated; crosses and other images were destroyed; schools were shut down,

Christians were easy targets. They were a weak minorities with virtually no defenses, often meeting in wood-walled and thatch-roof prayer huts that could be easily burned down. The attacks were reportedly provoked by efforts to convert Hindus. Explaining the reasons for the violence, one professor told Time, "If you're in power, what's the safe way to mobilize the militant cadres. Pick on a smaller minority. The violence is manageable and will not put the government in peril.”

Acts of Violence Against Christians in 1998 and 1999


Christain girls in 1900

There were numerous acts of violence against Christians in 1998 and 1999. In early 1998 in Bihar, a 46-year-old priest, who opened schools for Dalit children, was murdered. His body was found headless, with broken limbs and burn marks. In September 1998, four nuns were gang raped in the remote village of Sepour, near Navapada, in Madhya Pradesh, and a priest was assaulted and forced to walk through the street naked after students accused him of sodomy. He was taunted and humiliated by a crowd while police looked on and did nothing.

Most of the incidents occurred in Gujarat state. On Christmas Day 1998 in the Gujarat town of Ahwa, mobs attacked a Jesuit-run school and a high school run by nuns, and 18 other Christian establishments. They chanted anti-Christian slogans and carried weapons and burned everything in sight. Around two dozen other Gujarat towns, primarily in the Dangs District, about a 100 miles north of Bombay, experienced similar attacks. In one town the body of a man that had recently died was dug up and thrown on the steps of a church.

In Maharashtra state a priest who set up a school for earthquake victims was attacked by a mob shouting, "You want to make us Christians!" He survived but was badly beat up. A monk who worked for Mother Teresa's organization was shot and killed while transporting a truckload of food and medicine to lepers in Bihar. A sleeping priest was beaten to death in Uttar Pradesh with pump handles. A Christian graveyards was dug up in Andhra Pradesh.

In January 1999 in Orissa state, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two son were killed by alleged Hindu extremists. Staines, who had worked with leprosy victims for 23 years, and his two sons were sleeping in their car when they were attacked by a mob of 30 men with clubs and sticks. The mob poured paraffin on the car and broke windows and threw ignited straw through the broken windows. The fire turned quickly into an inferno. The crowd watched the Staines’s burned to death. Their bodies were burned beyond recognition.

The murder was attributed to the Bajrang Dal group, which is affiliated with the BJP. The leader of the Bajrang Dal group was captured by police after leading a mob that chopped off the arms of Muslim and set him on fire. Staines’s wife Gladys stayed on and continued to work with lepers in Orissa. In 2005, she was awarded one of India’s highest civilian awards for her work. In another incident in Orissa, a young Catholic priest was killed in attack that left him with eight arrows in his stomach, lungs and right eye. The attack was also blamed on the Bajrang Dal group.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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