Cardinal Oswald Gracias has expressed “anguish” over rising intolerance in India. Speaking after his election as president of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of India last week, he said that efforts to divide citizens along religious lines were “harmful for the nation”.
It is, perhaps, tempting to dismiss his comments as the kind of thing leaders of religious minorities routinely say. Yet the Archbishop of Bombay is an unusually authoritative figure. He is the first churchman to be president of both the Indian bishops’ conference (the world’s fourth largest) and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He is also the only Asian on the Council of Cardinals (C9) which advises Pope Francis.
It’s not hard to find evidence supporting Cardinal Gracias’s concerns. India is rising up the World Watch List, the annual ranking of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians compiled by Open Doors. In 2017, India was 15th. This year it’s 11th, sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This matters because while Christians account for only 2.3 per cent of India’s population, they number roughly 28 million. Recently, 32 priests and seminarians were held overnight in a police cell in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, after a mob attacked them simply for singing Christmas carols. The United Christian Forum recorded 216 such incidents in 2017. Police registered complaints in fewer than a quarter of cases. In the vast majority, no one was arrested, let alone charged. More than half the attacks took place in four flash-point states: Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Many argue that the climate changed after the election of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014. While he publicly defends religious pluralism, Modi is an advocate of Hindutva, the belief that India’s culture and institutions should be based on Hinduism. The author Dhirendra K Jha argues that Modi’s ascent empowered Hindu nationalist “shadow armies”. “After Modi became prime minister,” he contends, “these groups started thinking they have assumed power, it is their government. So they have gone amok. They don’t fear law and order or any democratic institution. They are on a rampage.” Christians are not the only victims. Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, are arguably the primary targets.
The pressures of minority life are pushing Indian Christians abroad. The Syro-Malabar community in England is large enough to have its own cathedral, in Preston, and its own bishop. Indians are active in Catholic parishes up and down the country. This is one more reason for us to care about the plight of Christians who trace their community’s origins back to Thomas the Apostle.
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