Earlier this month, a young American Christian missionary visited a remote Indian island in hopes of converting one of the most isolated tribes in the world. However, the islanders responded by killing him. It turned out that he wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place. The islanders have been isolated from civilization for so long that contact with the outside world could literally kill them.
But apparently a Christian group that advocates for persecuted Christians around the world didn’t get the memo. They tried to spin this as a case of a brave young man dying for the cause of Christ, and demanded that his killers be prosecuted. But after a good deal of prodding, that group has finally backed down.
Earlier this month, John Allen Chau traveled from his home in Vancouver, Washington to India. He was hoping to bring the Sentinelese tribe to Jesus. For over 60,000 years, the Sentinelese have live on North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. They are one of the few peoples who have not had any real contact with the outside world.
Chau, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, was trained and sent by Kansas City-based All Nations in hopes of fulfilling his “life’s calling”–winning over the Sentinelese. He’d spent several years trying to network with people who could help him–even though Indian law does not allow anyone to come within three nautical miles of the island. He’d wanted to reach out to the tribe since he was a teenager.
On the week before Thanksgiving, Chau bribed some fishermen to take him to North Sentinel. One attempt to contact the islanders and offer them gifts ended with him fleeing in a hail of arrows. Another contact attempt ended when they broke his kayak. On the final attempt, on November 17 the fishermen who ferried Chau there saw his body dragged across the shore.
Watch coverage of Chau’s death from KOIN in Portland here.
At first glance, it’s tempting to paint Chau as a martyr. Christians have been targeted for violence and discrimination for some time in India, a trend that has ramped up exponentially since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won power in 2014.
But the reason that island is off limits has nothing to do with keeping out missionaries. According to Survival International, an NGO that advocates for indigenous peoples, the Sentinelese have been isolated from civilization for so long that they lack genetic immunity to ordinary diseases.
That was revealed in brutal fashion in 1880, when a British colonial administrator took six Sentinelese–four adults and two children–off the island for “science reasons.” However, the four adults died in short order. The two children were sent back with “gifts”–and presumably carried pathogens back with them as well. No doubt the Sentinelese still remember this through oral history.
Numerous other attempts to make contact with the Sentinelese went awry. Most famously, when an Indian Coast Guard chopper flew over the island to check on the Sentinelese’s welfare after the 2004 tsunami, a Sentinelese man rushed after the chopper and tried to fire an arrow at it.
By then, the Indian government had wised up and decided that further contact with the tribe was not worth the risk. Indeed, the government has reportedly abandoned all efforts to recover Chau’s body after concluding that it isn’t worth the risk.
But apparently International Christian Concern, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for persecuted Christians around the world, didn’t get the memo. Within hours of Chau’s death becoming known, the group issued a staggeringly tone-deaf press release.
ICC spun this as yet another item in the litany of “attacks on Christian missionaries.” It also demanded “a full investigation” into Chau’s death, and called for those responsible to be “brought to justice.”
By then, however, more sober heads had delved further into the actual reason for the cordon around North Sentinel. It soon became apparent that this was not a case of civil disobedience for Jesus. Once word got out about ICC’s original statement, the group was relentlessly pilloried on Twitter.
Chau literally had no defensible reason to be there. It simply defies belief that he wasn’t told at some point why the island was off limits. If he went to that island knowing he could potentially wipe out the tribe just by being there, he was being arrogant in the extreme.
After considerable prodding, ICC was forced to issue a “clarification.”
The new statement said that ICC’s original call for justice was “boilerplate language” that is always used when relaying stories of violence that appears to be religiously motivated, since ICC frequently deals with governments that sweep it under the rug. But ICC has since backed down and now says that it has “no wish to see his killers prosecuted.” Apparently ICC must have done what it should have done–research why the island was off limits.
Chau only saw the Sentinelese as potential notches in his Bible, and didn’t seem to care that he could wipe them out simply by setting foot on the island. His death represents a searing indictment of the mentality that is still all too common in the fundamentalist world. Had he known to look more into the Sentinelese before he poured himself into getting to India, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he wouldn’t have even gone in the first place.
At least it appears that ICC realizes this, based on its new statement. It doesn’t erase the fact that for a good part of a week, it was defending fundamentalism in its most unacceptable form.
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