The Indian government has refused to renew permission for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (MoC) to receive funding from abroad, cutting off a key source of support for its work for the poor.
Nobel laureate Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who died in 1997, founded the MoC in 1950. The charity has more than 3,000 nuns worldwide who run hospices, community kitchens, schools, leper colonies and homes for abandoned children.
The Home Ministry rejected the charity's application for renewal of its licence under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act on Saturday.
“While considering the MoC's renewal application, some adverse inputs were noticed,” the ministry said, without providing details.
The ministry denied an allegation that it had frozen the charity's bank accounts, and said this was done by the charity itself.
Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state where the MoC has its headquarters, wrote on Twitter that she was shocked to hear that the ministry had frozen all the bank accounts of the MoC in India.
“Their 22,000 patients and employees have been left without food and medicines. While the law is paramount, humanitarian efforts must not be compromised,” Ms Banerjee, an opposition leader and vocal critic of the government, wrote.
Vicar General Dominic Gomes of the Archdiocese of Calcutta said the freezing of the accounts was “a cruel Christmas gift to the poorest of the poor".
The MoC later issued a statement confirming that its licence renewal application was turned down and that it had asked its centres not to operate any foreign contributions accounts until the matter is resolved.
The government's decision comes amid accusations by hardline Hindu groups affiliated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party that the MoC is leading religious conversion programmes under the guise of charity by offering poor Hindus and tribal communities food, medicine, money, free education and shelter. Earlier this month, the MoC found itself under investigation in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat following complaints that girls in its shelters were forced to read the Bible and recite Christian prayers. The charity has denied the allegations.
Critics say religious tensions have grown under Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, with more frequent attacks against minorities.
Hindu vigilante groups disrupted Christmas church services in parts of India, including in some states ruled by Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) where local elections will be held in the coming months.
The Hindu newspaper on Monday reported disruption of Christmas celebrations at the weekend and last week, including the vandalising of a life-size statue of Jesus Christ at Ambala in Haryana, a northern state governed by the BJP.
It said activists burnt a model of Santa Claus and chanted anti-Christmas slogans outside a church in Varanasi, Mr Modi's parliamentary constituency and Hinduism's holiest city.
Elias Vaz, national vice president of the All India Catholic Union, condemned the latest incidents.
“The strength of India is in its diversity and the people who have done this at Christmas are the real anti-nationals,” Mr Vaz said.
Several Indian states have passed — or are considering — anti-conversion laws that challenge the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief in the country.
Christians represent only 2.3 per cent of India's nearly 1.4 billion people, while Hindus are the overwhelming majority. The 18 million Catholic population is the second largest in Asia after the Philippines.