India’s Christians Fear Continued Targeting of Missionaries of Charity

Despite the restoration of the congregation’s license to receive foreign donations, Catholic leaders warn that other actions are likely in the future.

The Missionaries of Charity have experienced government-imposed restrictions to their work.
The Missionaries of Charity have experienced government-imposed restrictions to their work. (photo: Courtesy photo / Anto Akkara)

The Hindu nationalist government has restored the license of the Missionaries of Charity congregation to receive foreign donations that the government canceled on Christmas Day — but Catholic leaders warn other actions to undermine the order founded by Mother Teresa are likely to occur.

The Jan. 7 announcement by the federal Home Ministry surprised many. On Dec. 31, the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had ruled the religious congregation ineligible to receive foreign funds at the end of the year when it extended the renewal deadline for the Foreign Contribution Registration Act (FCRA) license holders. The government reiterated that this provision would not be applicable to the MCs, as their application had been already “rejected.”

However, a week later, the same government relented to Indian and international protests and announced the restoration of the FCRA license for the MCs; it has been renewed for five years.

The earlier decision handed out against the Missionaries of Charity by the BJP government not only generated protests across India, it was debated in the U.K. Parliament.

“We are relieved that the government has responded to the protests and restored the FCRA license of the Missionaries of Charity,” Auxiliary Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas of Ranchi, former secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told the Register Jan. 17. 

As the religious congregation’s supporters and volunteers were trying to mobilize funds to ensure the poor in the some 290 homes operated by the missionaries in India did not suffer due to the fund freeze, Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of eastern Odisha state, announced before the freeze was lifted that 7.9 million rupees (about $106,000) would be transferred from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to 13 institutions run by the charity in Odisha.

Patnaik even tasked top officials to ensure the funds reached the homes for people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and orphanages in the region, run by the congregation founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta.

“We were stunned when the FCRA was canceled. In Kolkata, we were planning to set up ‘collection camps’ outside MC homes,” Sunil Lucas, former president of Signis India and a close associate of the MCs for decades, told the Register. “I contacted the Sikh forum leaders and sought support for one week for one MC center. They gladly said, ‘We will support for two weeks.’” 

“Such is the love and respect for the MC nuns,” Lucas said. “Yet the Hindu nationalist shamelessly try to harass and denigrate them because the MCs are most respected Christian icons in the country.”


Widespread Indignation

The indignation over the cancellation of the FCRA license of the MCs was reflected in a Dec. 28 editorial from The Times of India, the largest-circulation English-language daily newspaper in the world, headlined “Step Motherly? Is the denial of FCRA renewal for the Mother Teresa-founded NGO at all justified?” 

Deploring the “painful shock” to the MCs on Christmas, the editorial pointed out that the objective of FCRA is to curb funds for activities “detrimental to national interest,” and, consequently, the religious order “shouldn’t be denied FCRA renewal.”

The editorial further asserted that the FCRA was made more stringent in 2020, opening the door to the MCs’ funding freeze, “at a time when India needed the nonprofit sector more than ever [because] both its funding and functioning were put under fresh restraints. Yet, from food to education, oxygen to plasma, their service remains invaluable in a country where the state isn’t always there for everyone.”

“St. Teresa’s popularity outside of India is second only to that of Gandhi,” pointed out A.J. Philip, a prominent journalist who has worked as an editor with several national dailies, in a syndicated commentary

“This is something which the Sangh Parivar [Hindu fundamentalists] has not been able to reconcile itself to. They never missed an opportunity to show the saint in a poor light.” 


Conversion Claims

Hindu nationalist activists routinely allege that conversion was the motive behind the service of Mother Teresa and her congregation to the poor and destitute.

“But such allegations were dismissed by most people because no one else can do what her nuns alone could do,” pointed out Philip, a non-Catholic Christian based in New Delhi.

However, the claims are now being recycled. At the peak of controversy over the FCRA cancellation, Panchjanya, a weekly newspaper produced by the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsavek Sangh organization, published an article targeting the Missionaries of Charity; titled “Crucifixion, Power and Conspiracy,” along with repeating the conversion allegations, it described the sainthood of Mother Teresa as “a lie.”

This correspondent interviewed Mother Teresa in November 1995 for the Register, seeking her response to the accusations that her service to the poor is aimed at converting Hindus to Catholicism.

“My answer is, God forgive them all, for they know not what they are saying,” she said. “I have told everybody that what we are doing is for the love of God, and works of love are always about accepting and respecting others. Works of love are always works of peace. In our home in Kolkata, there is great peace, unity and love. Many Hindu families bring food and clothing nonstop to our home for the dying. This is an act of love. I didn’t ask them to come. They have heard about what I am doing, and they all come.”


Religious-Freedom Violations

The actions against the Missionaries of Charity have occurred in the context of continuing criticism of India’s lack of respect for religious minorities. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report urged the Biden White House to name India to the State Department’s “red list” of countries engaged in “systematic, ongoing and egregious” violations of religious freedom, with the report calling out the BJP’s anti-Muslim policies.

Although the Modi government has denied all such charges, Human Rights Watch has raised similar objections recently.

“The BJP’s embrace of the Hindu majority at the expense of minorities has seeped into government institutions, undermining equal protection of the law without discrimination,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch last year, in an assessment of the government’s handling of recent communal violence. 

Meanwhile, the Evangelical Fellowship of India told The New York Times last month that “anti-Christian hate crimes have doubled since 2014 [when Modi took power]. So, too, have economic pincer movements. Hindu nationalist lawyers and activists have filed scores of complaints against Christian charities through an organization called the Legal Rights Observatory, starving them of funds and shutting many down.”

A quarter-century after the death of Mother Teresa, Bishop Mascarenhas told the Register, “There is a clear agenda behind the harassment of the MCs. Coordinated and systemic effort is made [by Hindu nationalists] consistently to denigrate and create hurdles in the path of the MCs, as Hindus just love them.”

Anto Akkara Mother Teresa photos
L to R: A statue of Mother Teresa attests to the affection the Indian people have for the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Anto Akkara visits with the saint.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“Given our experience, we do not expect the troubles will be over. Such bids will prop up again and again,” said Bishop Mascarenhas. 


Forced to Vacate

Meanwhile, on Jan. 3, the Missionaries of Charity sisters bade a tearful farewell to the facility they had run for more than five decades at Kanpur in northern Uttar Pradesh state, which is ruled by the BJP.

The nuns had no option but to quit the facility run from a rented house in the army cantonment area; the “lease” expired in 2019, and army officials asked the sisters to a pay 10 million rupees  ($136,000) per year for the last two years to retain the house. The MC nuns preferred to vacate it, shifting over a dozen orphan children to other centers.

Despite such hurdles, the congregation has quietly carried on its mandate of loving the “poorest of the poor” that their founder, canonized in September 2016, had prescribed for them.