TT, Lucknow, April 8: Police yesterday broke up a prayer at a church near Gorakhpur after a vigilante group founded by chief minister Yogi Adityanath complained that Hindus were being converted there.
Eleven male and female foreigners, including six Americans, and 150-odd local villagers were attending mass at the Mission Church in Dadhauli, Maharajganj district, at the time, the police said. Officers asked the foreigners to leave the village immediately.
Maharajganj superintendent of police Pramod Kumar said that members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a 15-year-old organisation accused in many cases of communal violence, had complained to the police about "dubious activities" at the church.
"But we didn't find anything objectionable. We have served a notice on the church authorities to inform the police about their activities," Kumar told The Telegraph. He did not explain why the mass needed to be stopped.
Krishna Nandan aka Pappu Puri, who claimed to be the district co-convener of the Vahini, told reporters that most of the 150 villagers present at the church were Hindus.
He accused church managers Yohannan Adam and Sushil Pal of "involvement in religious conversion of poor local Hindus" and the foreign visitors of having a hand in it. He said he had given the police "an ultimatum" to book the duo.
Pal and Adam denied carrying out any conversions. Pal said people "from across the world" visited the 20-year-old church, set up in an area with a sizeable Christian population.
"Local people (Hindus) too come out of curiosity. We cannot stop them. But this is the first time we are facing such an allegation," he said.
A local police officer said the church serves free lunch after mass, and that probably attracts some non-Christians.
But Puri alleged: "They were distributing a membership form among the villagers before carrying out conversions. We have told the police to take strong action within a week, else we shall meet our mahantji (Adityanath) and inform him about such activities in his area."
Maharajganj is 360km east of Lucknow and 60km from Gorakhpur, home to the Gorakhnath Math that Adityanath heads. The Vahini has wings in almost every block in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
A PTI report quoted a US embassy spokesperson as saying: "We are aware of the news reports concerning this incident. The protection of American citizens overseas is our highest priority."
The spokesperson didn't elaborate because of "privacy concerns", the report added.
"We stopped the ongoing prayer," Anand Kumar Gupta, station house office at the local Kothibhar police station, told reporters.
"There were 11 foreigners in the church at the time without any prior information to the police. We checked their passports and visas and allowed them to return to Delhi," he said.
Asked why the tourists would need to inform the police, Gupta and Kumar, the police superintendent, stayed silent.
Tourists from America and Western Europe - where the visitors, by all accounts, came from - don't need to inform the local police everywhere they travel in India.The PTI report quoted a Vahini leader, Krishna Nandan, as saying: "The presence of US nationals indicates that innocent and illiterate Hindus were being converted by missionaries who had lured them with money to change their religion."
It quoted Adam as saying: "The charges are absolutely baseless. The people were attending a prayer meeting voluntarily. We prayed. Nothing else was done."
Earlier this year, Vahini activists had attacked the Full Gospel Church in Gorakhpur, accusing it of converting people. During last Christmas, the Vahini had warned Christian priests against holding any religious events outside churches.
"We have received inputs that Christian preachers and priests hold religious ceremonies in rural areas and secret locations in which Hindus are brought and motivated to join Christianity through allurements, including cash," PTI quoted Vahini president Sunil Singh as saying.
"They can hold their prayers inside churches or their homes but not any place outside. We have alerted the district administration in various places about such ceremonies slated to be held. If such functions do happen, churches will not be safe."
Singh said the Vahini had a youth member in every village in some eastern Uttar Pradesh districts and kept receiving local information from them.