NEW DELHI -- Worried about its dwindling numbers, the Roman Catholic church in southern India is exhorting its flock to have more children, with some parishes offering free schooling, medical care and even cash bonuses for large families, church officials said Tuesday.
The strategy comes as India's population tops 1.2 billion, making it the second most populous country in the world after China, and runs counter to a national government policy of limiting family size.
But in the southern state of Kerala, where Catholics have long been a large, important minority, church authorities believe the state's overall Christian population could drop to 17 percent this year, down from 19.5 percent in 1991. While they don't have precise numbers for the Catholic population, they believe it is also dropping sharply.
"The Christian community in Kerala is dwindling. We realized that if the numbers decreased further, it would have a negative impact on the community," said Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India in New Delhi.
Christianity is widely thought to have come to India in the year 52, when St. Thomas came to Kerala after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
What remains unsaid in Kerala is that the state's Muslim population grew by 1.7 percent between 1991 and 2001, while the Hindu and Christian populations have fallen.
Kerala, once a communist bastion and the state with the highest literacy rate, was about 56 percent Hindu, 19.5 percent Christian and 24 percent Muslim in the last census in 2001.
The church in Kerala is also incensed by a bill drafted by a government panel recommending a strict two-child policy to check population growth.
The bill -- which is unlikely to become a law -- suggests three months of imprisonment and a 10,000-rupee ($200) fine for couples with more than two children.
So Kerala's Catholic parishes have launched a variety of programs, from free education to free medical care, said the Rev. Jose Kottayil of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council. Most begin offering the benefits with the fifth child, but the church helps poorer families with fewer children.
The St. Vincent de Paul Forane Church, in the Kerala town of Kalpetta, is offering a bond of 10,000 rupees ($200) in the name of the fifth child. The money would be deposited in a bank until the child turns 18, church officials said.
A large number of church-sponsored groups in Kerala have begun campaigns with the slogan "A large family is a happy family."
Kottayil said the Catholic church plans to honor large families at a ceremony next month.