A village church in a Hindu-dominated village of Asroi in Aligarh district. In 2014 Hindu activists stormed into the church and installed Hindu idols on its pulpit aiming to convert it to a Hindu temple. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman for the Guardian
Police arrived in their wake and detained several people including George, releasing them after it was clear no religious ceremony had taken place.
“The men made videos and interrogated people,” George says. “They asked: are they giving money to you? Are they converting you?”
The roots of Christianity on the subcontinent stretch as far back as AD52,
writes the historian William Dalrymple. For centuries, western wanderers in south India returned with tales of Christians who traced their origins to the arrival of Saint Thomas in Kerala state nearly two decades after Jesus’ death.
The seeds of the contemporary backlash were sown centuries later, when British preachers fanned out across colonial
India to win souls for Christ, prompting several princely states to institute laws limiting conversions.
In recent decades, Hindutva ire has focused on evangelical crusades such as the AD2000 project, which
sought to flood north India with American missionaries and money, aimed especially at Dalits trying to shed the burden of their caste.
Critics such as Arun Shourie, a journalist and former BJP politician, say such efforts mostly produced “rice Christians” – shallow converts swayed by offers of food and welfare. “They join out of necessity, and when necessity compels them they will join something else,” Shourie says.
Today, at least eight Indian states prohibit conversion by force, fraud or inducement, with BJP leaders repeatedly pushing to take the bans nationwide.
India’s largest international donor, the Christian charity Compassion International, was
forced to cease its Indian operations in March after the government cut off its foreign funding over concerns it was using the money for proselytisation.
In contrast, Hindutva groups freely conduct mass conversions of Muslims and Christians in ceremonies they call
ghar wapsi, or “homecoming”.
In this charged atmosphere, pastors and priests in Aligarh assiduously avoid the C-word. “We don’t convert. We make disciples for Jesus,” George says.
“I haven’t converted anyone in five years,” says Rev Jonathan Lal. “People come to us, sometimes they’re non-Christians, and I pray for them.”
“People see the miracles, they see the healing,” says an elder at the Ascension Church, Vincent Joel, his voice rising. “They want to come. What should we do? Chase them away?”
Children are busy cleaning and decorating a church for the Christmas in a small Christian locality in Aligarh for Christmas celebrations. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman for the Guardian
However many new adherents can be persuaded to file past the police for Christmas mass on Monday, Christian numbers in India will remain small.
The faith has relatively few adherents to show for its two millennia on the subcontinent, and the millions of dollars and hours its champions have spent trying to sway Indian hearts.
“Our population in India is only 2.3%,” says Joel, in the church courtyard. “If we did so many conversions we should be increasing. But we are shrinking.”
Not so, says Dayal. Worshipping “sometimes in the dead of night”, rarely registering new converts with the state, flocks in the Indian hinterland are holding steady, he says.
“Christians will survive, even as an underground church,” he adds. “We have survived here for 2,000 years.”
Additional reporting by Shaikh Azizur Rahman.