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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 46, New Delhi, October 30, 2021

News of Anti-Christian Violence Precedes Modi in Vatican call | John Dayal

Friday 29 October 2021, by John Dayal


It is now official. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference has confirmed that Pope Francis, known to the Catholic community of the world as the Holy Father, will be meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for thirty minutes in the Vatican this Saturday, 30th October. It is a courtesy call by Mr Modi, who will be in Rome for a scheduled international conference.

The high profile scheduled meeting of US President Joe Biden with the Pope, has invited global interest because of the issue of a women’s right to have an abortion, and the Catholic Church’s stringent Pro Life policy. A Modi-Francis will get eyeballs on the issue of persecution of Christians in many states in India. The custodial death of octogenarian and ailing Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy is much too recent to have receded from anyone’s memory.

The Vatican is acutely aware of the human rights and freedom of faith situation in India. Even before the Vatican officially confirmed the courtesy call of Mr Modi, the information portals of the headquarters of the universal Catholic church had carried a long report on the survey of churches in Karnataka. The Archbishop of Bangalore, Peter Machado, had in a press conference denounced the survey as likely to fan further persecution at the hands of militant and violent extremists.

And Mr Modi himself has been urged by the church to use his power to see that these elements stop attacking communities, churches and educational institutions. The latest such letter to Mr Modi was written by Bhopal Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal who said the prime minister must “take effective steps to contain rising violence against Christians”.

No one really expects a miraculous end to the persecution of religious minorities in India. Th government does not acknowledge international criticism of its human rights situation. Its persistence defence has been that India has s secular constitution and it has institutions such as the courts, the National Commission for Human rights and the minority commissions as guarantees on the rights of citizens. It also ignores even UN criticism that the constitutional institutions have themselves suffered massive erosion in Mr Modi’s term in office.

The Christian community makes up make up 2.3 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population, and can be said to politically influential in Goa, Kerala and three small states in the North East, namely Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. who are mostly Hindus.

Much is being made of impending elections in Goa with the BJP hoping that Modi’s meeting with the Pope will appease the Catholic voters, who make up a quarter of the state. The BJP has been in power for many years, but with the Congress, AAP and Trinamool Congress in the fray this time, BJP hopes that even a section of the Catholic vote may help it retain power.

Mr Modi has for seven years resisted repeated requests by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India to invite the Pope on an official visit. Pope Francis, who has come as close as Sri Lanka, is said to be keen to meet the community in India.

It would have been strange for Mr Modi to spend three days in Rome without making a courtesy visit to the Vatican which is in reality not much bigger than a district of Rome though it is a sovereign state with Francis as its Head of State.

It is not yet clear which back-channel interlocuters made this courtesy meeting possible, but several important Malayalee leaders of the BJP, including a state governor, have been intermediaries between the Kerala church and the Prime Minister’s office.

Mr Modi, had to listen to US vice president, Kamala Harris, stress democracy and human rights when he called on her during his United Nations visit. The Pope may not be so direct, perhaps, but his position on human rights, freedom of faith and expression, are well known. He is a Jesuit, and the community is passionate about issues of development, rights and justice.

India has been indicted in various international indices for its human rights record, and in particular for the persecution of Muslims and Christians.

The Indian Christian community is not expecting an immediate change in the ground situation or the Sangh Parivar and BJP attitude. It does hope that the judicial process will uphold the rights of all minorities, as also those of Dalits and Adivasis amongst which the church works.

The September October season has seen the most vicious attacks and curbs in the Christian community, apart from the continuing debasing of the much larger Muslim population.

The Bhopal Archbishop wrote to the prime minister on 26 October – days after Hindustan Times had announced Mr Modi’s Vatican visit. “Very recently certain individuals and groups have stepped up a hate campaign against minority groups, especially Christians,” he said.

He pointed to the harassment of two Catholic nuns in the Mau district of Uttar Pradesh on October 10. A Hindutva mob took Ursuline Franciscan Sisters Gracy Monteiro and Roshi Minj from a Mau bus stand to the nearest police station accusing them of illegal religious conversion. They were kept in the police station for over six hours without any formal complaint. [This was carried by Sabrang in an interview with the Nuns.]

Archbishop Cornelio also cited the hate speech case of BJP legislator Rameshwar Sharma, who appealed to Hindus in a speech to “stay away” from Christians and Muslims, stressing that contact would destroy Hindus. Such public discourse from elected representatives seemed to be a “deliberate attempt to whip up communal hatred against minority communities is a matter of great concern for everyone.”

Rising religious fundamentalism and hatred, the prelate said, is “a threat to the growth of the nation,” the archbishop wrote to Mr Modi.

Various Christian organisations, including UFI, United Christian Forum and Persecution relief have documented 305 attacks on Christians spread over 21 states since the beginning of the year. BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 66 incidents followed by Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh (47), tribal people’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-ruled Jharkhand (30) and BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh (26), according to data collected since January. Karnataka, another BJP-ruled state in the south, also witnessed a spurt in violence against Christians with 32 incidents.

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