Difficult situation of Christians in India

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Roman Catholic Archbishop of Agra Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

Almost every day we read alarming news about India: Christians in India, the country regarded as the biggest democratic country in the world, fall victims to persecutions by Hindu fundamentalists, supported by the international Hindu organization 'Vishva Hindu Parishad' (VHP) and its political fraction Baratiya Janata Party (BJP). There are various forms of persecutions: discrimination at work, assaults, arsons of their churches and schools as well as forced conversions to Hinduism. Unfortunately, there are also cases of atrocious, often unpunished, murders of Christians. Recently the VHP and the BJP have asked the authorities of the state of Orissa (North Eastern India) to dismiss immediately Christian employees from governmental offices, administration and police. These actions, completely contrary to the Indian constitution and democratic principles of social relationships, have not sufficiently been condemned by the international public opinion, and what we have to do with is a policy, which reminds us of the discrimination in the Nazi Germany! The worse thing is that the world media almost completely ignore the problem of Christians' persecutions in India. In order to elucidate the situation in India to our readers I have interviewed Archbishop Oswald Gracias.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: - The Church in India originates from the Apostles and her beginnings were connected with the teaching of Saint Thomas the Apostle (in 2002 India celebrated the 1950th anniversary of Christianity). Why is the Church seen as a 'foreign body' in India in spite of this long tradition?

Archbishop Oswald Gracias: - It seems to me that the Church in India has not introduced right inculturation. We have made several attempts but we are still seen as 'those from the West'. The reason is that our liturgy, formation and philosophy are western and the missionaries generally come from the countries of the West. The merging of Christianity and local culture (inculturation) is a challenge that the Church faces worldwide. Today we are trying to do this in a more conscious way.
India is a country of great spirituality. It is the cradle of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, but Christianity is perceived as something that was brought to India. I think we need a lot of time to change this view.

- And what about the liturgy?

- Our liturgy is also western since we have not introduced a sufficient number of Indian elements.

- The Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled in India till 2004. It was connected with such radical Hindu organizations as the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) or the RSS (Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh). In order to gain power the BJP decided to stake on the card of Hindu nationalism, and the Hindu extremists assumed the highest position in the federal authorities (e.g. Minister Arun Shourie and Minister Dilip Singh Judeo). In this atmosphere anti-Christian politics and forced conversion to Hinduism became an official programme of many Indian states. Some political observers called that Indian policy 'Hindu fascism'. What did the situation of the Church look like in those difficult times?

- The BJP exercised power for 5 years. Christians had many problems - they were attacked, and the police seldom intervened in such cases. However, I would not accuse the party leaders of that action. During that period I was secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India and that's why I used to have regular meetings with the prime minister and deputy prime minister. Talking to them I had the impression that in a way they were powerless in confrontation with those events. It seemed to me that the Hindu politicians used religion like an object to seize power. They were playing with fire and that's why they lost control over the situation.
That was a very difficult period in the life of the Church. However, I can proudly say that Christians have never broken down. We realized that the cross was a part of our faith, and persecutions as such are nothing new in the history of the Church.

- I can see that you are trying to justify the BJP leaders. But this party supported the policy of religious apartheid with the motto 'India only for Hindus'...

- Surely, it was an evil policy but the BJP did not officially implement it. It should be explained that it was the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the international Hindu organization, which promoted that policy. Many members of the BJP realize that one cannot support such an ideology in a multi-religious country.
But I would like to stress that generally speaking Hindus in India are very tolerant. They can also appreciate other religions. The majority of Hindus are not fundamentalists and only the minority uses religion for political purposes.

- Numerous Indian Christians come from tribesmen and from the lowest caste, the so-called 'dalit'. When people accept Christianity they are aware of their human dignity and equal rights with other social groups, which disturbs the old caste system in India and is a slight to the privileges of the high castes. Is it true that the social-economic issues lie at the bottom of the attacks on Christianity?

- I think this is the core of the issue. In many regions people attack missionaries because they question the social-economic relationships in the local community. If we analyzed the long history of the missions in India we would say that the European catechists and parish priests always dealt with social issues, which shook the prevailing social structure. People of high castes, who exploit low castes, do not like this. No doubt, the system of castes is questioned when low castes become aware of their rights.

- Why do we call India the largest democratic country in the world although the country tolerates the system of castes that sorts people in an even more radical way than the South African apartheid that was demonized for years?

- India's caste system is connected with the Hindu tradition and constitutes an element of Indian philosophy. Hinduism is connected with pantheism according to which we all are a part of God. The problem is that each of us comes from a different part of God, and consequently each has a different rank. The Church has always opposed the caste system and condemned it. However, the caste mentality is so rooted in the Indian mentality that we need many generations to change it. Belonging to a certain caste is more important than religion, education or financial resources. Caste is domineering in the whole social system. One cannot even rationally discuss about this since it has become a generally accepted conviction. I believe that by establishing human rights and individualism we will reach social equality but this requires lots of time. Finally, I would like to say that India's caste system is our biggest problem.

- We get the news that the Hindu extremists still force local Christians to accept Hinduism. Is this true?

- Yes, that is right. The Hindu fundamentalists organize special camps in which, they claim 'people come home', i.e. become converted from Christianity to Hinduism. However, our sources say that very few people reject Christianity and the publicity that such cases gain is for the purpose of propaganda. Furthermore, some Christians become Hindus because of certain benefits. But I want to repeat again that this is not a mass phenomenon although they try to make people believe that it concerns thousands of Christians.

- What changes have been made after the Congress Party won?

- Before the elections all people were convinced that the BJP would win. Thank God it was the Indian National Congress that won, which was a nice surprise. The government opposes fundamentalists and announces that India is a country of all religions. The problem is that the changes concern the highest authorities and the local bureaucrats have retained their posts. I would like to explain that the previous government had some economic successes. Unfortunately, only the middle class became richer whereas the poor became even poorer. The previous authorities were not interested in the lot of the poor and peasants. The present government is to change this policy. We have a good prime minister whom all people hold in respect for his honesty, discipline and wise approach towards problems. There is a special commission on the problems of minorities and its activities aim at protecting minorities and providing them special rights.

- Do you think that the government of Prime Minister Singh will succeed in guaranteeing all citizens religious freedom?

- Prime Minister Singh has said that this is the aim of his policy. The prime minister and members of his cabinet often repeat this. I think that all people want this, too. Since every citizen must be treated as if he/she was a part of the country. It seems to me that the government cannot give up its policy aiming at religious freedom because they would lose people's confidence. One cannot make radical changes in the society without making fundamental changes in the leadership.

- I hope that the authorities will also change textbooks that served Hindu propaganda...

- This is bitter truth. The previous government tried to change history and thus cultivated children's minds. If those manipulations had been successful they would have had lasting effects. Fortunately, they were stopped.

- Has the economic growth contributed to the secularization of the Indian society?

- I think this will never happen in India. India has deep spiritual roots and religion plays a vital role in every citizen's life. By nature India's people are close to God. Even if they do not pray regularly God plays an important role in their personal and family lives. Therefore, welfare itself will not eliminate God from people's lives. Only a minority may be secularized but India will remain a religious nation in which God will always be present.

- What can Catholics from other countries do to help Indian Catholics and to prevent them from the aggression of the Hindu fundamentalists?

- Words of solidarity and support give us courage because we need support and assurance that Catholics from other countries are with us and that we are one family. We do not want to make the impression that we are the 'western' Church, and that's why we do not ask the West for help in those issues. On the other hand, we appreciate that other Catholics take interest in us and help us since we are a definite minority. This is very important to us.

- The fact that we demand respect for minority rights from the Indian authorities does not mean that we interfere in internal affairs...

- That's true. Human rights, religious freedom, freedom of consciousness for every man - this is the philosophy prevailing in the whole world. With your help it can also become India's philosophy.

- Thank you for the conversation.

"Niedziela" 29/2005

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: