.- Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged Indian bishops not to allow anti-Christian laws or violence deter them from spreading the Gospel in India.
“You must always be prepared to spread the Kingdom of God and to walk in the footsteps of Christ, who was himself misunderstood, despised, falsely accused and who suffered for the sake of truth,” he told the bishops at his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, Sept. 19.
“Do not be deterred when such trials arise in your own ministry, and in that of your priests and religious.”
Although anti-Christian persecution has afflicted much of India, it seems that in recent years the problem persists only in areas governed by Hindu nationalist parties. Of the country’s 28 states, five have enacted “anti-conversion” laws, which impose heavy fines and jail sentences for those “forcing” others to change their religion.
“They talk of forced conversions but they haven’t been able to find out one case of a forced conversion,” said Archbishop Vincent Concessao of New Delhi in remarks to CNA, just before meeting with the Pope.
“They follow Hitler’s methodology of keep telling lies and after a while people will believe them.”
The Pope said that such laws, even if they are intimidating, should not deter the apostolic mission of the Church.
He said that if the local churches “ensure that an appropriate formation is given to those who, genuinely motivated by a love of God and neighbor, wish to become Christians,” then “they will remain faithful to Christ’s command to ‘make disciples of all nations.’”
The “anti-conversion” laws are currently being enforced in the north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Orissa in the east, Gujarat in the west and Himachal Pradesh in the north. The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need reports that Hindu hardliners routinely engineer the arrest of Christians on charges of “forcible conversion.”
The bishops are in Italy for their 2011 “ad limina” visit to update the Pope on the health of the Church in India. Pope Benedict urged them to continue to receive converts from all social backgrounds: “God welcomes everyone, without distinction, into union with him through the Church.”
Recent years have seen an influx of “Dalits” – the bottom rung of the Hindu caste system – into Christianity. The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the campaign to end discrimination against Christian Dalits, leading to the arrest of several bishops.
Although India is the second most populous country in the world, with over 1.18 billion people, only about 2 percent are Catholic. Eighty percent of the country is Hindu. But the Church does play a significant role in providing health care, education and welfare services across the country.
“As part of its ancient and rich heritage, India has a long and distinguished Christian presence which has contributed to Indian society and benefited your culture in innumerable ways, enriching the lives of countless fellow citizens, not just those who are Catholic,” said the Pope.
Many Indian bishops hope this year’s ad limina visit will pave the way for Pope Benedict to their country. An invitation to the Pope was personally issued during a previous ad limina session in May. If the visit does happen, it will be the fourth by a Pope to India, following trips by Pope Paul VI in 1964 and Pope John Paul II in 1986 and 1999.