Christian persecution stains India

  • October 3, 2008

The worsening persecution of Indian Christians by fundamentalist Hindus is a black mark on India’s modernizing democracy and a violation of Hinduism’s basic principle of tolerance for other religions.

Western Christians should stand in solidarity with our Indian brothers and sisters who are being murdered, mutilated and driven from their homes, whose houses are being burned and whose churches are being desecrated and destroyed. In this Canadian election season, we should exact a promise from our prospective members of Parliament that they will urge the next government to encourage Delhi to beef up its current, woefully ineffective campaign to halt the violence.

There is no time to lose. According to analysts with Indian news organizations, the anti-Christian harassment, which began in August, is likely to accelerate in the months leading up to next year’s general elections. At stake is the parliamentary standing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition party, which is believed by some observers to be instigating the violence to win votes. This theory has been flatly denied by an official BJP spokesperson, who called the attacks “unfortunate,” but blamed them on the efforts of Christians to win converts among Hindus.

Whether or not BJP operatives are at work behind the scenes in India’s latest wave of anti-Christian persecution, the resurgent Hindu fundamentalism that fuels BJP is also a powerful factor in the recent destruction and desecration. Some radical Hindus believe, for example, that conversion from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam renders the convert somehow “un-Indian.”

“The converted Christians, the converted Muslims, become cruel,” said a spokesman for the radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad party. “Their nationhood, their loyalty, is not to the nation. Their loyalty is to the Vatican. Their loyalty is to Allah. Conversion is the enemy of the nation.”

Everyone, I suspect, has heard some version of such prejudice. Accusations of divided loyalty are standard elements in anti-Semitism. They were — and perhaps still are, in some quarters — levelled against Catholics in North America.

That said, Catholics do have an interesting problem that we don’t share with patriotic unbelievers: the ongoing struggle, which can invigorate moral and intellectual life, to integrate local political responsibility with deep Christian teachings that know no national boundaries. We may, and sometimes do, come to political conclusions at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the hour. But whatever the outcome, this process of thought can only be fruitful if conducted in a context of complete freedom. And it is freedom of conscience — the liberty to dissent from the dominant ideology without fear of reprisal — that some Hindu ultra-nationalists in India are seeking to take away from the Christian minority of their fellow citizens.

I believe they will likely fail. Despite the rise of Hindu parties like BJP in the last 20 years, India’s ideals of freedom and tolerance are deeply rooted in its past as a Western colony and in its experience of strong, independent nationhood. Moreover, this vast country is on a fast track to global industrial and financial modernity — a project that could be thrown into jeopardy should its leaders and people succumb to the poisons of nativism and religious malice.

With the onslaught of the anti-Christian campaign, the future of India’s political culture hangs in the balance. But saving our Christian comrades involves more than just the reassertion of liberal democratic values and institutions. According to Hindu columnist Shashi Tharoor, writing in The Times of India, it will also demand the recovery of Hinduism’s soul from its radical kidnappers. The anti-Christian effort, Tharoor writes, is “a new low in our political life,” and the handiwork of extremists intent on using religious differences to reactionary political ends.

“What have we come to that a land that has been a haven of tolerance for religious minorities throughout its history should have sunk so low? India’s is a civilization that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more important, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, Muslims and several varieties of Christians.... As a believing Hindu, I am ashamed of what is being done by people claiming to be acting in the name of my faith.”

We can hope that many other Hindu believers in India rise up to denounce the force that has been unleashed against Christians, their homes and places of worship. We can pray that India will live up to its promise to protect its Christian people from injustice.

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