Canadian Bishops sound alarm on Indian persecution

  • October 27, 2008
{mosimage}OTTAWA - The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops wants Canada to express “grave concern” to India about Christian persecution and cut off funds if aid money supports persecuting groups.

“According to substantiated news reports, this past summer there have been pre-meditated mob attacks in the state of Orissa as well as in the states of Karnataka and Madha Pradesh,” bishops' conference president Archbishop James Weisgerber wrote in an Oct. 15 letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“These have resulted in the deaths of at least 57 people in Orissa alone; campaigns of intimidation and forced conversions of Christians to Hinduism; the vandalism and destruction of thousands of homes and scores of church institutions, including churches, prayer halls, colleges, schools and orphanages; and the flight of over 10,000 people to refugee centres plus another estimated 40,000 into the forests.”

Weisgerber said a unanimous vote at the bishops' plenary session in late September prompted his letter.

“The problem thus is not only one of brutal violence against a tiny minority, but also an outpouring of extreme nationalism — all the more worrisome because India is the most populous democracy in the world,” he wrote, noting India as a Commonwealth country is a signatory to the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles that opposes discrimination based on religion, race, creed and other grounds.

“We ask the Government of Canada to express to the Government of India its grave concern regarding the systematic violence against Catholics and other Christians in certain Indian states, and to suggest strongly that the Government of India properly use its influence and its authority to assist those states to restore order and to protect the legitimate rights and freedoms of Indian Christians,” the archbishop said.

Weisgerber also noted concerns Catholic bishops in India, Indian Christians, members of other faiths and the Indian media have raised about whether funding from Canada is “going to organizations in India which may be encouraging such violence, contrary to Canadian law.”

He noted that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have also spoken out, in addition to Catholic and Christian leaders. He said, however, that when Pope Benedict XVI included Indian Christians in his prayers Oct. 12, India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist BJP “claimed that the Pope was interfering in India’s internal affairs.”

CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) Canada national secretary Carl Hétu said it is important the bishops of Canada react to what is happening in India and that all Christians, especially Catholics, be in solidarity with persecuted members of their faith. Hétu said the violence against Christians “needs to be denounced” and Indian authorities must ensure that all minorities are protected, whether they are religious or ethnic or from the bottom of the illegal caste system.

Just back from a briefing with CNEWA’s Indian director, Hétu said the problems facing Christians are more complex than simple religious persecution. As India emerges as a major world nation and its economy grows, it is experiencing rapid social, political and economic upheaval, he said, noting that minorities are often targeted by those who resist change. He noted India is a multi-language, multinational country and that persecution in the eastern states does not reflect what is happening elsewhere. Christians comprise only 2.5 per cent of India’s population, he said, and most live in Kerala, a province on the southwest coast that is one-quarter Christian. No reports of violence have come from this province, where Christians have lived for 2,000 years and are well integrated and well respected, he said.

In regions where Christians are relatively new, and where the caste system still holds sway, problems have arisen.

“The lower castes are starting to awaken, to realize they are equal, that they have rights,” Hetu said. “The ones that happen to help them awaken are new Christians in the east of India, missionaries.”

The lower castes are very much interested in Christian values that see them as equal, he said, but those who have historically exploited them are resisting societal transformation.

“Christians become an easy target to explain all the troubles of India,” he said, noting that minorities are often targeted during times of change and turmoil.

CNEWA, a charity recognized by the Holy See, provides relief and assistance to Christians in the Middle East, Ukraine and India.

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