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Tribal Christianity (and allied castes) in the Himalayas Christopher, Stephen


The tribal Christian population of the high Himalayas and low-lying hills spans five countries (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan and China) and contested boarderlands (Tibet, Sikkim, Aksai Chin and Kashmir, among others). It encompasses approximately 6 million people. The largest Christian tribal populations are 4.9 million converted Baptists, Presbyterians and Catholics in Northeast India and 375,000 Evangelical Protestants in Nepal (a figure sometimes rounded up to 1 million) -- arguably the fastest-growing Christian population in the world. Small but important Christian tribal communities are in Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir. The historical timeline of tribal conversion to Christianity depends on the region and date of missionary penetration into the hills. The Portuguese Jesuit João Cabral was arguably the first European to access the Himalayan region in 1627 with missionary designs. Since then, thousands of missionaries have come into the Himalayan region, from the Londonbased Church Missionary Society (Punjab region through the 20th century) to the recent explosion of South Korean missionaries populating language institutes and centered in the Kathmandu Valley. Indigenous house churches have sprouted up in remote tribal villages. Himalayan tribal Christianity falls into a broad spectrum of official affiliation. Some expressions of tribal Christianity are largely indigenous and invisible; they address local aspirations and offer respite from spiritual affliction and caste discrimination within circumscribed tribal cosmologies and social stratifications. Other expressions of tribal Christianity are hooked into international NGOs and global ideoscapes promoting salvation that are backed by foreign patronage and theological instruction; they are networked through social media platforms and employ a range of conversion techniques associated with Western (and South Korean) Evangelicalism. In some cases, tribal Christianity in the Himalayas allows discriminated-against Dalit groups who are embedded within tribal formations to find self-respect and social validation within the new idiom of salvation and equality under Yesu Masih (Jesus Christ). Although Christians are persecuted throughout South Asia, overt violence against the minority religion is not as strongly evident in the Himalayan tribal range as it is in Pakistan and non-Himalayan India states (especially Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, where in 2007-08 in Kandhamal District 50 Christians were killed and 95 churches burned down). The rise of right-wing Hindutva politics since 2014 and the disproportionate criminalization of Christian conversion as coercive have pushed Christianity further into the social margins everywhere through India, including the Himalayan tribal belt. As would be expected, Christian tribals in the Himalayas are not strongly unified around their minority religious status; divided by language, geography and often theology and sectarian affiliation, they are sometimes balkanized into subdividing communities. Nevertheless, they are conceptually and anthropologically interconnected as a Pan-Himalayan community of faith, spiritual aspiration and unique forms of theological syncretism.

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