India archbishop condemns Mother Teresa conversion claim

KOLKATA - The archbishop of Kolkata on Wednesday condemned claims by a prominent Hindu group that Mother Teresa's work was motivated by a desire to convert Indians to Christianity.

Thomas D'Souza said the Nobel peace laureate "wanted to give dignity to the poor and the sick and dying," calling the claims by the head of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) "absolutely false".

"She believed that every person is created in the image and likeness of God," he said. "Whatever Bhagwat has said is absolutely false."

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat sparked protest in India when he said this week that the true motive behind the nun's work was that its beneficiaries should turn to Christianity.

Mother Teresa won global acclaim for her work in the slums of Kolkata and is still revered by Indians of all faiths.

Bhagwat's comments come at a time of heightened sensitivity over religious freedom in India, where churches and a Christian school have been attacked in recent months.

The RSS is a key supporter of India's Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, who recently promised to crack down on religious violence and ensure freedom of worship for all faiths.

Modi had been heavily criticised for not speaking out earlier against religious violence and has also faced flak for remaining silent about a recent spate of mass "re-conversions" of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.

Sunita Kumar, spokeswoman for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, told AFP that Bhagwat's comments were "very sad" and called him "ill-informed".

"I am a devout Sikh. I never witnessed any conversion or felt that there was a covert or overt design to convert people to Christianity," said Kumar, who worked closely with Mother Teresa before the nun's death in 1997.

"She preached to serve the poor and to care for the sick and dying."

Critics of Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have voiced fears about a rise in influence of Hindu hardliners.

Modi joined the RSS in his youth and the organisation campaigned heavily for his party at last year's general election, which it won in a landslide.