The issue of Christian missionaries proselytizing in India has taken a bizarre turn after a church in the eastern state of Jharkhand installed a statue of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus depicted as “tribals,” the indigenous people of the state. With dark brown complexions and sporting traditional Indian tribal clothing (white sari with red border, etc.), the statue in a church in the village of Singhpur has sparked outrage from local Hindus and other non-Christians who have called for its immediate removal.
According to a report in BBC last week, some non-Christian tribals even conducted a march in the nearby city of Ranchi to protest the statue. “It is … the first time in the state that Mother Mary and Baby Jesus have been portrayed as tribals. What was the need for it?” said Bandhan Tigga, the chief priest of the Sarna Society, a group that represents the non-Christian tribal population in Jharkhand. More than one-fourth of the state’s population — about 8.6 million people — of Jharkhand are tribals, but only 3 percent of them are Christians.
“Showing Mother Mary as a tribal is a part of the larger design to make the tribal population believe that she was from their community and confuse them,” Tigga added. “One hundred years from now, people here would start believing that Mother Mary was actually our tribal goddess. It’s an attempt to convert Sarna tribals to Christianity. If they do not remove it, a nationwide protest will be organized.” Tigga told the Times of India that “Mother Mary was a foreigner and showing her as a tribal woman is definitely not correct.”
In response, Christian tribals have defended the statue. “What’s wrong in this? It’s just like the Chinese, Japanese, Irish, German or even the African version of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus,” said Father Augustine Kerketta, a senior church official in Ranchi. “It happens everywhere as part of enculturation of the local tradition.” Kerketta also said some local politicians are likely behind the protests to foster religious enmity. “General elections are due early next year, and some people may wish to divide the Christian and non-Christian tribal populations for political gains,” he said.