Catholic schools close to protest vandalism in north Indian city

Lucknow, India - Catholic schools closed in protest Monday in this northern Indian city after Hindu hard-liners vandalized a Roman Catholic school, angry over what they called attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity.

Activists from India's main opposition party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, protested Sunday outside the Loreto Convent girls high school, breaking several windows at the prestigious 140-year-old institution, which draws students from many faiths.

The controversy started last week after the school held a prayer session where a visiting spiritual healer claimed Jesus Christ had entered his body to bless those present.

Several girls fainted during session, when the man, a former rickshaw puller named Nobo Kumar, writhed on the floor.

Kumar founded his group, Our Lady of Chandra, in 1998 after he "experienced miraculous healing from an acutely damaged kidney condition," according to the organization's Web site.

The session caused an outcry in Lucknow and the BJP launched its protests, claiming the school was trying to convert non-Christian children who attend the private institute.

"It was a planned move to convert Hindus to Christianity, and we will not tolerate it," said Vijay Pathak, a BJP leader.

Conversion is a highly sensitive topic in India, which is about 75 percent Hindu. Conversion is illegal in the state of Uttar Pradhesh, where Lucknow is the capital.

But the Rev. Ronald D'Souza, secretary of the Catholic Diocese of Lucknow, who ordered other schools to close in protest, defended the Loreto Convent.

"There was no conversion. It was just a spiritual session with children," he said.

Many students agreed.

"The principal had declared from the onset that it was no attempt to convert students to Christianity," said Anam Zaidi, adding she found it a "positive experience."

School Principal Sister Monica said she was not deterred by the protests.

"Our school also gives spiritual teaching to students and this was just a spiritual session with children. It was just like any other class. We do it regularly and will do it again," she said.