Indian Church to observe ‘day of prayer and fasting’ amid growing religious polarization

Indian bishops Indian Catholics bishops pray at the closing of the their Feb. 7, 2024, conference. | Credit: Anto Akkara

The Catholic Church in India has called for observing March 22 as a “day of prayer and fasting for peace and harmony in the country.”

“There is an unprecedented religious polarization which is harming the cherished social harmony in our country and endangering democracy itself,” said a statement released at the conclusion of the 36th biennial assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in Bangalore.

“There is an apprehension that divisive attitudes, hate speeches, and fundamentalist movements are eroding the pluralistic ethos which has always characterized our country and its constitution. The fundamental rights and minority rights guaranteed by the constitution should never be undermined,” the statement read.

Hindu flags raised on churches and mosques

The unusually critical statement from the Indian Church was seen as a criticism of the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), who observers say has promoted a Hindu nationalist agenda since 2014 when he assumed office.

Millions among India’s more than 1 billion Hindus were glued to the live telecast of the consecration of a grand temple dedicated to lord Ram — a prominent Hindu deity of northern India — in Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh on Jan. 22.

Modi took part in the ceremony, calling it a “historic day.” He encouraged people to celebrate the opening of the temple by decorating their houses and lighting oil lamps, UCA News reported.

Christians and Muslims raised the alarm when Hindu fundamentalists took to the streets and hoisted Hindu saffron flags atop churches and mosques.

However, local authorities in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh failed to take action against what was seen by many as an anti-Christian and anti-Muslim act.

The police chief of the Jhabua district, Agam Jain, when questioned about one of the incidents at a church claimed: “We asked him [the pastor] for the complaint to act in the matter, but he refused, stating that he had nothing to complain about, as those who put the flag on top of the house were known to him. He didn’t want to make any complaint,” the New Indian Express reported.

Increasing persecution of Christians

India’s population is 79.8 % Hindu, 14.2 % Muslim, and 2.3 % Christian. In Uttar Pradesh state — India’s most populous state with 230 million inhabitants — only .18% are Christian.

In December, the United Christian Forum (UCF), the ecumenical forum that monitors anti-Christian violence in the county, released a list of 687 incidents of violence against Christians from the first 334 days of 2023. The report also noted that sporadic incidents of anti-Christian violence had become endemic since BJP and Modi came to power in 2014.

While only 147 incidents of violence against Christians were reported in 2014, the UCF pointed out that incidents have spiraled steadily since then to 687 in 2023.

In response to the rising incidents of persecution, the bishops’ statement said: “We appeal to our political leaders to make all attempts to preserve the basic structure of the constitution, particularly the preamble, which declares India to be a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic committed to justice, equality, and fraternity.’”

Meanwhile, there has been a chorus of protest across the political spectrum amid BJP leaders calling for the removal of the words “secular” and “socialist” from the Indian Constitution as Hindu nationalists have taken the issue to the federal Supreme Court.

Catholics urged to vote

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“There is widespread perception that the important democratic institutions of the country are weakening, the federal structure is under stress, and the media are not fulfilling their role as the fourth pillar of democracy,” the Indian bishops lamented.

The assembly of bishops of India’s 174 dioceses urged “all citizens to enroll as voters and exercise their sacred duty to vote wisely so that we elect leaders who are committed to constitutional values and to the uplift of the poor.”

According to the Election Commission of India, an estimated 986 million people in India are eligible to vote in the general election that is expected to take place this spring.

“With general elections coming up, all Christians eligible to vote should be motivated to cast their votes as it is an important duty,” Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, apostolic nuncio to India, urged in his inaugural address to the CBCI assembly on Jan. 31.

In casting their votes, the nuncio said, “one has to keep in mind that the representative will respect religious freedom, uphold human dignity, and foster democratic process.”

While India is “acknowledged as an emerging economic power in the world,” the CBCI statement pointed out, “economic development in the country seems to have benefitted only a small percentage. Rate of unemployment has vastly increased. Large-scale migration has caused untold misery to many.”

“So also, scientific and technological development has not reached the majority of our people especially in the rural areas, resulting in a digital divide,” noted the statement of the CBCI assembly, which discussed the theme “The Church’s Response to the Current Sociopolitical Situation in the Country and the Benefits and Challenges of Artificial Intelligence.”

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While acknowledging the “tremendous benefits of artificial intelligence in the fields of health care, agriculture, education, and research,” the assembly cautioned that “the same technologies can become tools that spread hatred, violence, manipulation, and social bigotry.

Pointing out that “human data collected by digital platforms and AI can be misused to undermine the privacy of individuals and family,” the Indian bishops urged the government “to regulate the development and use of AI so as to encourage the best practices and prevent abuses.”

“If we do not speak up now, when are we going to do it?” a senior archbishop told CNA when asked about the strong critical tenor of the statement.

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