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Indian authorities to block foreign funding for Mother Teresa’s charity

Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, distribute food to the poor Dec. 28 at its headquarters in Kolkata, India. (Bikas Das/AP)

NEW DELHI — For decades, the Christian congregation founded by Mother Teresa in an Indian slum was seen by supporters as a symbol of selfless giving and a magnet for donations from around the world. But to India’s Hindu right wing, it was a target of their ire — and a hotbed, some alleged, for the conversion of desperate Hindus into Christians.

Now, the Missionaries of Charity — an organization that grew from a humble order of 12 sisters led by Mother Teresa into one of the world’s most recognizable Christian nonprofits with branches from Venezuela to Washington, D.C. — is facing potentially crippling sanctions from the Indian government.

The organization’s international donations will be effectively frozen on Saturday after India’s Home Ministry said Monday it will not renew the group’s license to receive funds from abroad because it found “adverse inputs.”

Although the ministry did not provide details about its reasoning or the case, the decision comes at a moment of rising Hindu nationalism in India — and mounting scrutiny of foreign nonprofits and human rights organizations — under the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

The funding ban threatens an operation of thousands of nuns who have depended for decades on the enduring legacy of Mother Teresa to raise money from around the world and use it to provide shelter, food and education for orphans, the homeless and the sick. Mother Teresa died in 1997 and was declared a saint in 2016.

Leaders at the Missionaries of Charity declined to comment but issued a brief statement saying they have asked members to stop accessing accounts with foreign funds until the matter is “resolved.” A senior official from the Archdiocese of Calcutta, where the nonprofit is based, condemned the government move as an attack on both the Christian community and on “the poorest of India’s poor” who depend on its services.

In recent years, the Modi government has cut off foreign funding for nonreligious organizations as well, in moves that effectively led to the decline or demise of civil society groups critical of its administration. Greenpeace slashed its Indian operations amid a lengthy financial probe, while Amnesty International announced last year it would cease its Indian operations altogether after its bank accounts were frozen.

Mother Teresa’s order has not been a vocal opponent of the government, but it has long been viewed with distrust by India’s Hindu right. The leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an influential Hindu organization closely aligned with the BJP, sparked a national debate in 2015 after he said Mother Teresa served India’s poor not only out of altruism but to convert them to Christianity.

John Dayal, a Christian activist in New Delhi, said India’s Christian community has long faced pressure, particularly under periods of BJP rule when Hindu vigilante groups feel more emboldened. But this year, he said, reports of attacks on churches have ticked up. Christian communities in several states reported cases of vandalism or disturbances during their Christmas celebrations this week.

Earlier in December, local officials in Gujarat — a predominantly Hindu state where Modi served as leader for more than a decade — filed complaints against workers from the Missionaries of Charity, accusing them of “luring” local girls to Christianity and “hurting Hindu religious sentiments.”

Two of the group’s workers are under investigation for forced conversion and could face imprisonment and fines.

The government “decided to teach Mother Teresa’s organization a lesson,” said Dayal, who predicted that her order would financially “starve to death” under the funding restriction. “She was always, and continues to be, vilified by the Hindu right wing,” he said.

Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910, arrived in India as a young nun in 1929. She established the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta. She received the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her charity work and was declared a saint by Pope Francis in 2016. That year, Modi surprised some of his right-wing supporters by saying Indians should feel proud about her canonization.

Although modern India was founded in 1947 as a secular nation and Hindus retain a significant majority, the religious balance of the population and the issue of conversions represent looming concerns for members of the RSS and affiliated Hindu nationalist groups. They argue that Abrahamic religions such as Islam and Christianity are influences historically brought in by foreign invaders and undermine India’s national character.

Under BJP leadership, several Indian states have recently introduced, or are mulling, laws to restrict conversion through marriage. Hindu nationalists, including BJP leaders, have warned about the rise of “love jihad,” a term they use to allege that Muslim men are marrying and converting Hindu women as part of a systematic conspiracy.

India’s last census in 2011 showed that roughly 2 percent of the population are Christians, compared with 80 percent Hindus and 14 percent Muslims.

A.C. Michael, a Christian community leader in New Delhi and former member of the Indian capital’s minorities commission, said the Missionaries of Charity should be able to continue operations purely on funding from its domestic donors. But it was also possible that the government would backtrack, he said.

“It seems the government didn’t understand what would happen if they touched an organization like this,” he said. “They’ve gotten the whole world calling them up.”

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