'Miracles' boost Indian Christians

Shillong, India - More than 100 years after the first waves of a great Welsh religious revival reached faraway north-eastern India, Christian church leaders are claiming a religious reawakening in the region.

Leaders of the Presbyterian Church in the north-eastern Indian states of Meghalaya and Mizoram - sandwiched between Muslim Bangladesh and Buddhist Burma - say there have been miracles occurring.

A church at Malki, in Meghalaya's capital Shillong, has been receiving a steady stream of devotees ever since word spread that a cross here has been glowing and radiating the image of Lord Jesus.

This, combined with recent reports of several school students "convulsing, behaving abnormally and even fainting", has prompted the talk of a revival.

"The Holy Spirit is here to reawaken people," says Reverend Laldawngliana, a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church of India in Shillong.

Special prayers

He says similar religious experiences proclaimed the beginning of a reawakening in the region in 1906, just two years after the last great revival in Wales.

The Presbyterian Church celebrated the centenary of the revival with special congregations and prayer services in April.

Reverend Laldawngliana says reports of students fainting started pouring in a couple of weeks after the centenary celebrations.

Theologian Reverend Chuauthuama says similar reports have come in from Mizoram too.

All the seven north-eastern states have a significant population of Christians and at least three states in the region - Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland - are Christian majority.

Christianity came to the northeast in early 19th century when the British conquered Assam and slowly muscled their way into the rest of the region.

The Presbyterian Church of India was founded in 1841 by a Welsh missionary, Reverend Thomas Jones, in Meghalaya (then a part of Assam).

'A boost'

"The revival in 1906 gave a fillip to the evangelical works of Welsh missionaries in both Meghalaya and Mizoram," says Rev Vanlalchhuanawma, an expert in the history of Christian revivals.

"Christianity came to the region in a western garb. Now if a revival really occurs in the region, we will be very happy. It will possibly give a boost to our efforts to get rid of the 'foreign religion tag'," he says.

Christian leaders in Mizoram and Meghalaya say a revival here may help the church in Wales, the seat of the Presbyterian Church.

Though Wales witnessed some 15 major revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries, the region has of late been going through a religious crisis.

According to a 2001 study, not even one in 10 people in Wales regularly go to church.

The Presbyterian Church of India sent two priests - Rev Hmar Sankhuma and Rev John Colney - to Wales a few months back to fill the "spiritual void" there.

"We owe a lot to the Church in Wales. We have to do our bit when our parent church is in crisis," says Rev Chuauthuama.

'Bogus attempt'

The claims of miracles in Meghalaya have gone largely unchallenged.

But Bengal-based rationalist Prabir Ghosh dismisses the phenomenon as a "bogus attempt" by the Church to draw converts.

Earlier, Mr Ghosh had challenged the basis for Mother Teresa's beatification. He argued that she should be conferred sainthood on the basis of her great work amongst Calcutta's poor rather than over miracles attributed to her.

"The Pope has said this will be the century of Christianity, so churches all over are seeking large-scale conversions and the miracles are part of the exercise," says Mr Ghosh.

The governments of the north-eastern states have maintained a studied silence on the issue.

"We are keeping a close watch on the situation," is all that they will say officially.