India - increasing wave of Christians’ persecutions
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Reverend Monsignor Felix A. Machado, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, about the situation of the Catholic Church in India.
We often hear alarming news about the increased wave of Christians’ persecutions in India. Every week there are cases of violence against the Christian minority in this huge country, which is regarded as the biggest democratic state in the world. But can we regard India as a democratic country if it cannot ensure their citizens their right to religious freedom? The statistics say that in 2006 there were 215 cases of violence against Christians, commencing with the cases of profanation of their worship places and ending with the murders of the leaders of Christian communities. The right to religious freedom is especially infringed in the states governed by the Hindu nationalists. (India is a federation consisting of 25 states and 7 union territories.) Christians’ persecutions become part of the politics of ‘returning to the roots’ promoted by the Hindu fundamentalists, which resort to any means, including physical violence, to ‘re-convert’ religious minorities into Hinduism. The big country celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence on 15 August 2007. On that occasion I met Reverend Msgr Felix A. Machado, priest born in India, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to talk about the Catholic Church in India, about the social situation in the country and the persecutions of the local Christians.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: - What should we know about the Catholic Church in India?
Rev. Felix A. Machado: - One should know that the Church in India has existed since the apostolic times. Although missionaries used to arrive in India not long time ago the Church has always been an inseparable part of the Indian society for two millennia. The so-called Christians of St Thomas, descendants of the Christians who were evangelised by that Apostle, testify to this truth. The Catholic Church in India consists of 30 metropolitans and 150 dioceses run by ca. 160 bishops, all of them have Indian background. The Catholic population amounts to 20 million; they come from all social strata and are practicing, active believers. And there are about 100,000 religious men and women. First of all, they help the poorest, people living on society’s margin, the pariahs.
- In recent years we have heard more and more about acts of intolerance towards Catholics in India or about their persecutions. What is happening in India?
- I can testify that since India’s independence (15 August 1947) the co-existence between all citizens in India, regardless of their religions, has been peaceful and harmonious. The Catholic Church has been admired for her selfless service, especially service to the poorest and most humiliated strata of society. The contribution of the Church has been even acknowledged by her opponents who attack Christians and churches. The acts of intolerance towards the Church have rather been a new phenomenon. This is the ‘work’ of a small group of people who distort history, sow hatred, and try to create divisions in the society that has been peaceful so far. The Church has been their innocent victim. These horrible acts of violence towards the Catholic Church, although not very frequent, are systematic and well-planned. Naturally, the attacks against the Church are illegal but the small, yet influential, groups of fundamentalists manage to convince the politicians to introduce in some states the so-called anti-conversion laws that are to legalise these horrible crimes to some extent.
- Where does this increasing hostility towards Indian Christians come from?
- There are many reasons and they are complicated. The Gospel the Church proclaims has changed the society. The involvement of the Church for the cause of the local people, pariahs, orphans, widows, fight against children’s slave work has been seen as ‘a dangerous programme’ by the people whose consolidated businesses are endangered. It is them that want to force the Church to remain silent, want to paralyse her activities, kill her believers, presenting her as ‘the main enemy’ of the nation. Some ambitious politicians, usurping the role of ‘the defenders of the Indian nation’ abuse Hinduism and ‘instrumentalise’ it to sow hatred among the simple but uneducated masses, and provoke actions against the Church. The promotion of this dangerous ideology (hindutva), using religious emotions of crowds, is a well-planned political action. But one must emphasize that most Indian people do not trust the fundamentalists and lament their behaviour.
- How does the Hindu fundamentalism limit the evangelisation activities of the Church?
- The Church continues her mission of God (missio Dei) with great energy, realising that the Cross of Christ is madness to the pagans and foolishness to the wise. But it is sad to hear that in some regions of the country, especially where Christians are an economically weakly and politically meaningless minority, the followers of Christ are persecuted or killed, their properties are destroyed, they are falsely accused, they are forced to leave their Christian faith. In this situation the bishops teach that people cannot get frightened, they cannot cherish hatred and revenge but must always be ready to dialogue. The mission of evangelisation conducted by the Church has not actually been stopped since the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. Unfortunately, a systematic propaganda of hatred towards the Church and Christians is promoted in India. Most people in India know very little about Christians, their religion and the Magisterium of the Church. Therefore, they easily believe in false information concerning the Church and her mission. However, nothing can stop the mission of evangelisation because the Church is missionary by her very nature.
- Aggressive Protestant sects have appeared in many countries. How do the activities of these sects influence the image of Christianity among people in India?
- The Church clearly states that she wants to propose the Gospel to all people but she does not want to impose it. The faith in Christ is a free gift of God. Therefore, the Church wants to share the Gospel with every man. Unfortunately, there are certain independent groups, having Christian background, who proclaim the Gospel in a very aggressive way, causing the impression that they try as if to impose it on people who do not want to follow Christ. Sometimes these groups speak about the ancient religious traditions in the way that is an affront to them and that humiliates them. They often do not know what these traditions mean. Moreover, private television stations, the so-called TV preachers, mainly from the United States, interpret the Bible in an ambiguous way and thus they create a false image of Christianity. This helps the Hindu fundamentalists to promote their anti-Christian propaganda, strengthen the deeply rooted prejudices towards Christians and put people off the Gospel, people who mostly need it.
- Some Indian priests, under the pretext of enculturation, make alarming liturgical and theological ‘experiments’. What should be the boundaries of enculturation of Christianity in the Indian culture?
- In the past almost all Christian missionaries in India came from Europe, Oceania and North America. The fruit of their activities and the action of God’s grace has been the dynamic Christian community in our country. The prophetic words of Pius XII, ‘May your sons, India, become ambassadors of Christ for your fellow countrymen’ have come true. Today, priests, monks, nuns and laymen have reached a certain maturity of their faith. We also have prominent thinkers who try to analyse some mysteries of Christian faith anew. Sometimes it is a very risky endeavour, especially when some of them go beyond the boundaries set by the teaching of the Church. Of course, enculturation is not only tolerated but also directly encouraged by the Church so that the Gospel can deeply penetrate the life of the nations and the mystery of the Church can be rooted in all cultures. However, one must realise that the Church doe not want to promote culture in itself. On the other hand, the Church wants to evangelise people and wants evangelisation be conducted through culture. In his encyclical ‘Fides at ratio’ the Servant of God John Paul II challenged Christians of India, ‘ In India particularly, it is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements compatible with their faith, in order to enrich Christian thought.’ (No 72). The problems appear when the enculturation attempts ignore the teaching of the Church or cut themselves off from it. These dubious ‘experiments’ are threats towards Christian faith. Recently, the Holy Father again focused on the dangers for the faith of the Church that result from relativism and syncretism.
- India is regarded as the most populous democratic country in the world. However, Indian democracy tolerates the shameful caste system that reduces certain part of the society to the level of citizens without any rights. Why is this archaic social system, worse that the apartheid in South Africa, which outraged the public opinion in the world so much, tolerated in this dynamically developing country in the 21st century?
- It is true that India is the biggest democratic country in the world and in spite of many problems the democratic system is functioning. Since India’s independence the country has made great progress although there is still a lot to do. India’s constitution guarantees fundamental human rights of all citizens. As far as persecutions of citizens, because of their belonging to certain caste, are concerned our democratic country does not approve these types of persecutions and the Indian law regards them as criminal. What’s more, some state privileges are reserved to the lowest castes and pariahs, but one may wonder why those who choose Christianity lose these privileges! I must admit that the caste system is much worse than the apartheid, which was obligatory in the Republic of South Africa. This system is a real curse for India. The thing is that the system has been deeply rooted in people’s souls and now they cannot get rid of it. Therefore, Christianity which proclaims that every man is created on the image and likeness of God, that Christ, the Lord and Saviour of all people shed his blood for every man and every woman, plays a big role in transforming the society. The Church is involved in defending the dignity of every man, especially the poor, the exploited and the humiliated. Catholics are proud of their Church because of the appointment of Cardinal Placidus T. Toppo, who comes from the tribals - it was John Paul II who created him cardinal. Thus the Church is at the forefront of respecting and defending dignity and laws of the dalits (i.e. the poorest and most oppressed social groups: castes, pariahs and tribals). Therefore, the problem is not the ‘gaps’ in India’s democracy but it is people’s mentality that should be changed.