Echoing sentiments expressed India’s Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu who had said last week that India is fighting the problems of poverty, illiteracy, atrocities on women and weaker sections, and religious fundamentalism, despite massive growth, Archbishop Anil Couto, archbishop of Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, while drawing attention to the divisiveness prevalent in the nation, has appealed and urged the people of the largest democracy on earth to pray for peace in the country pray that they elect leaders who are committed to secularism and work to unite the peoples of all faiths, rather than dividing them on the basis of caste, creed, economic status, gender, and age.
Shri Naidu, in his address in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram had said, “India has made rapid strides in various fields since attaining Independence. Yet the country is grappling with problems like poverty, illiteracy, atrocities on women and weaker sections, religious fundamentalism and terrorism.”
In a pastoral letter read out on May 13 in all the national capital’s parishes, Archbishop Couto called on Catholics in his archdiocese to start a campaign of prayer for peace and fasting every Friday ahead of the general elections in India, which is due in April 2019, as India faces a “turbulent political future” that threatens the country’s democracy.
Archbishop Anil Couto’s call has sparked a political controversy, with some fundamentalist groups accused him of undermining Indian interests and working with the Vatican to tarnish the government’s image. These divisive groups reacted angrily and said the archbishop’s statement was politically motivated.
Leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the prayer campaign was designed to turn Catholic voters against his party, which is seen as working to make India a nation of Hindu dominance. BJP spokesman Sambit Patra told some Christian leaders in a television debate that by “raking up these issues [of discrimination against Christians] you are crucifying the truth about India.”
Rakesh Sinha, an ideologue from influential Hindu group Rashtryia Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said: “This is a direct attack by the church on Indian secularism and democracy, and this is a direct intervention by the Vatican as these bishops are appointed by the pope. Their accountability is not to India but to the pope.” He told the TV debate that the prayer appeal was “only a part of activities of Vatican design to project the Modi government in a poor light.”
He said the archbishop and other Christian leaders need to be told that ever since the Modi government came to power, there has not been a single incident of rioting or anti-Christian or even anti-Muslim violence in the country.
Published data shows Shaina’s claims are incorrect. According to Christian groups, attacks against Christians rose after Modi came to power and have spiralled in recent years.
There were 736 attacks recorded against Christians in 2017 against 348 in 2016, according to data from Persecution Relief, an ecumenical forum that records Christian persecution in India and helps victims. Amid reports of increasing attacks against Christians, Modi himself in February 2015 told a Christian conference in New Delhi that his government would act against such crimes.
Delhi Archdiocesan spokesman Father Savarimuthu Sankar said the “prayers are part of Christian life and it has nothing to do with politics.” The archbishop “of course mentioned the background” for which he sought the prayers. “Media reports are enough to understand how violently people were attacked” in the name of religion-related issues, he said. Father Sankar said the angry reactions linking the prayer campaign with the Vatican and money “means that either they are afraid of our prayers or they are promoted by their own guilt.”
India’s largest lay Catholic organization, The All India Catholic Union, has expressed solidarity with Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi, who is being accused of trying to tarnish the image of India after he launched campaign to pray for peace in the country.
The All India Catholic Union, the largest and oldest movement of lay Christians in the country, in a statement issued on May 24, expressed solidarity with Archbishop Couto and commended “his courage, integrity and spiritual strength in calling attention to this rising tide of targeted violence against Dalits and religious minorities.”
“The All India Catholic Union expresses serious concern at attempts by the Union government, the ruling party and its ideological affiliates as well as a section of the media, to divide the Christian churches, pitting bishop against bishop, and targeting individual religious leaders who dare speak of the multiple threats posed to India’s democracy and its secular and plural character,” the Catholic Union stated in a press statement.
Meanwhile, less than a year ahead of elections in three northern Indian states, Christian leaders have pledged to vote for political parties assuring protection of their communities from discrimination and abuse. An Ecumenical Christian group, Sarva Isai Mahasangh (All Christian Forum) has resolved not to support parties in upcoming federal and state elections that work against religious minorities.
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh states, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), face elections in November and December while the term of BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi expires next May.
“We are passing through a very critical period in the history of our country where people are divided on caste and religious lines,” said Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. A very dangerous trend exists in the country that undermines the secular tenets of our constitution. Come what may, we will continue with our mission of serving the poor and the needy.”
The archbishop was among some 700 Christian representatives from nine northern Indian states who attended a May 19 meeting in Bhopal to discuss an “alarming increase” in intolerance toward religious minorities. Christian leaders say extreme Hindu groups have stepped up violence against Christians in their push to make India a Hindu-only nation with support from the BJP, which controls most state governments in northern India.