Pope's India visit: mixed blessing for Christians

Persecuted minority welcomes support, but some Hindus call it a hostileinvasion.

Patrick and Andrew sit anxious and quiet, hair carefully brushed, in St. Paul's church lobby. Their grandparents, tribal villagers, became Roman Catholics years ago, and made sure their families were educated, learned the laws of India, and found good jobs.

But Patrick and Andrew are frightened. A local priest, the Rev. Arun Doss, was murdered by a militant Hindu in September. Recently church members tried to build a new rectory on church property in a village, but an angry mob stopped them. The two young men and their church friends now read the Bible more, and think about the trials faced by the apostles.

"Our ancestors were illiterates but we can read, and we know our rights," says Andrew.

"What upsets those who hate us is that we buy land fair and square - but our votes can no longer be bought. This upsets local tradition."

Today, as Pope John Paul II arrives for three days as a state guest in India, he is stepping into a country that is not the same place he visited in 1986 - when few seemed bothered by the 3 percent Christian minority. At that time, Sikhs and Muslims bore the brunt of convulsive antiminority sentiment in a country otherwise known for tolerance.

But now the leader of the largest wing of Christianity has been under a withering attack by fundamentalist Hindu forces. He is stepping into a country where "Indian" nationalism has increasingly come to mean "Hindu" nationalism - ratified in part by the election this fall of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Hindu nationalist government.

Hindu leaders want the pope to apologize for the church's checkered colonial past, and to renounce the practice of "conversions," where locals are turned to the Christian faith. For two months organized Hindu protests, effigy burnings, a 500-mile "religious awakening" procession, and countless battles and debates in the national parliament have taken place over the meaning of the papal visit.

Ironically, sources say, the pope's trip was part of a Vatican strategy to offer moral support and succor to the besieged Indian Christian minority. Christian villages, churches, nuns, priests, and laypeople have been attacked more in the past 17 months - 168 instances in 1998 - than in all 52 years since Indian independence, according to a 37-page Human Rights Watch report issued this fall titled "Politics by Other Means."

Hindu leaders have put Catholics on the defensive, portraying the papal visit as part of a steamrolling, proselytizing move, as well as an invasion of hostile foreign cultural ideology.

The pope is part of a "sinister conspiracy" to "provoke conflicts" in India, stated the weekly organ of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organization of the Sangh Parivar, or family of Hindus, which includes 108 other groups, including the BJP. If Christians do not stop conversions, and the police do not stop Christians, then "violence can be predicted and even justified by insulted citizens," stated columnist M.V. Kamath in The Times of India.

"For 75 years the enemy were Muslims. But now Christians are a soft target," says Praful Bidwai, a leading New Delhi liberal. "They are a visible minority with many churches and schools. But they are invisible in terms of numbers, and they don't vote in blocs. So the pope's visit allows hard-liners an opportunity to create an enemy out of 'the other.' "

Adding fuel to an already blazing rhetorical fire, two weeks ago Indian papers picked up news of a pamphlet issued by Southern Baptist missionary publishers that condemned Hinduism, calling it a faith of "hopeless darkness."

Christians are known here for charitable outreach through schools and hospitals. About 90 percent of the leprosy clinics in India, for example, are Christian-run, according to the Red Cross.

For government, an awkward position

The papal trip creates an odd dilemma for the new government. Officials do not want an embarrassing tainted visit to mar India's image.

But many BJP ministers, not to mention the rank and file, agree with the anti-papal views. At best, senior leaders are ambivalent about the anti-Christian campaign waged by political outfits affiliated with the ruling party. Last week, the vice president of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a leading national group with ties to the BJP, called India's officially revered state guest "a big dacoit," an epithet meaning "ruthless armed robber."

So far Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has said nothing in protest, something that reportedly embitters Catholic leaders. The inability of Indian Vice President Krishna Kant to get government clearance to attend a special interfaith meeting of religious leaders in Delhi chaired by the pontiff also dismayed Catholics.

After respected Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh implied publicly that the pope should apologize for past church inhumanities in India, the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi archdiocese told reporters that "Jaswant Singh is joining the bandwagon. It goes to show that the government doesn't think very differently from the VHP and the RSS."

Hindus document violent Catholic inquisitions in the 15th and 16th centuries in Goa on India's west coast. Some 50,000 Hindus were likely killed and scores of temples demolished. In a thoughtful letter to Catholic officials, Ashok Chowgule of the VHP in Bombay pointed out that the pope has apologized in five countries, most recently in Jamaica, for old crimes; why not in India? The Vatican is considering an apology, church officials say, but will not be coerced into giving one.

For many Christian leaders, as well as ordinary villagers like Andrew and Patrick, the larger issue is not the pope or his visit but the overall direction Hindu cultural forces are taking, particularly in villages where Christians are unprotected. They say the real intent of many in the "Hindu awakening," as it is sometimes known, is to shut down Christians entirely. A leader of the militant Bajarang Dal, Surendra Jain, said he advocated driving "all Christians out of the country."

Lacking protection against attack

Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Right Documentation Center, and recent author of a report on the Baptist missionary who was burned alive with his two sons last January in Orissa, argues that in recent years, police protection of local Christians has been lacking. "Fundamentalist Hindu organizations in many places enjoy the protection of state agencies who do not prosecute illegal acts of aggression," he says. "Very often, police reports are buried, lost, or are not pursued."

In Gujarat, where Christians have been under heavy attack, a proposed law would make it a crime punishable by three years in prison to convert a non-Christian to the Christian faith. Last March, local officials abandoned a plan to single out and identify all Christians by a census questionnaire that would require them to reveal where they lived, what cars and weapons they own, and what links they have to local priests and foreign countries.

Under the Indian Constitution, individuals can freely "preach, practice, and propagate" their faith. However, they may not do so if local officials find that such free exercise is a threat to "law and order."

Before leaving on Nov. 8, the pope will hold a mass for 60,000 people at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, visit Mohandas Gandhi's memorial, and meet with President K.R. Narayanan and Prime Minister Vajpayee.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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