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.

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