PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, June 2 (AP)--Pastor Tyrone Allen's soft Southern accent rises from a whispered exhortation to a dramatic crescendo that makes the conference room reverberate with the words of the living Bible.
``Touch your neighbor and say, `I'm in the Lord for life,''' Allen commands. The assembled U.S. and local Pentecostals touch hands, fingers and shoulders and murmur amens and hallelujahs.
The words could come from any Christian church or revival tent in America's Bible Belt. But Pastor Allen, from Virginia Beach, Va., is preaching in a plush hall of the Trinidad Hilton, part of a Pentecostal campaign that worries Hindu leaders in the Caribbean island.
Pentecostal and evangelical Christian churches are sprouting across Trinidad--and Hindu leaders are starting to fight back.
``I told our people to throw these people out of the villages,'' said Sat Maharaj, head of the Hindu organization Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha. ``We launched a counter-campaign'' that includes literature pointing out alleged inconsistencies in the Bible and what Maharaj calls its undue focus on material possessions.
``We're in the soul-saving business,'' retorts Allen, whose Bible Way Church held a recent annual conference here. ``We have a purpose and this purpose is to give out our knowledge of the Lord. He commanded us to make disciples and that's what we're doing.''
Hindus chafe especially at visits by American evangelicals like Benny Hinn, who came last year and spoke of Trinidad as a ``country full of devils and demons.''
The competition touches on the delicate balance between Trinidad's East Indian and African descended communities, each comprising almost half of the population of 1.3 million.
East Indians--mostly descendants of laborers imported by British colonizers in the 19th century--were once overwhelmingly Hindu, and some Muslim. But Christian churches have made steady headway in recent decades and now can claim perhaps one-third of the East Indians.
Consequently, census figures show that Hindus now account for only one-quarter of the Trinidadian population; some 30 percent of Trinidadians are Catholics, 11 percent Anglican and 6 percent Muslims, with the others including Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Moravians, and Baptists.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals say many Hindus need little convincing.
``If you're in an organization that does not satisfy your needs, I see nothing wrong with moving,'' said the Rev. Peter Hosein, a Trinidadian who says he's a Christian of no denomination trying to start his own church. ``It's not stealing. You're just moving to higher ground.''
Pastor Winston Cuffie says Hindus in poor, rural areas may find some Pentecostal churches attractive because they look affluent.
Cuffie's Miracle Ministry is housed in his Christ Castle Church in Chaguanas, in central Trinidad. Built from donations and fund-raisers, the $1.8 million complex arises, magnificently pink, like a castle from its modest surroundings.
``Material success is part of it,'' said Cuffie, whose congregation of 1,600 includes many converts from Hinduism and offers investment seminars and other financial strategies. ``If you're in poverty and you're suffering, we teach you how you can come out of that situation.''
Inside his church are royal purple altar chairs with gold frames imported from Iran, six chandeliers and a pulpit that features a rainbow of bright mirrors lit by multicolored lights. Cuffie himself wears an electric blue suit and bright yellow handkerchief.
Many Hindus say they are mobilizing to stop the conversions - if only to maintain a centuries-old tradition on the island.
``It is, in fact, a religious war, not in the sense of Muslims and Christians fighting a bloody war, but it is a war,'' said Kamla Persad, a Hindu activist and newspaper columnist. ``No Hindu organization over the years had a program to match the Christians. Now we are going out and trying to reconvert our people. The Hindus are waking up to that.''
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