Beyond optics, what Pope Francis accepting Modi’s invite means for Christians in India

Anand Kochukudy

Kochi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Pope Francis on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Rome last week concluded with the global head of the Catholic Church accepting his invitation to visit India.

The Pope had expressed his keenness to visit India on previous occasions, and has been to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar on two previous trips to the subcontinent.

The top clergy in India hailed the move, as they have been persistent in their demand that the country should extend an official invite to the Pope.
Beyond the optics, it is important to examine the underlying context of the upcoming visit. There are crucial elections coming up in the states of Goa and Manipur, with sizeable Christian populations, where the community can sway the poll outcome.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also been actively wooing the Syrian Christian community in Kerala, where it senses an opening. Pope Francis’s visit is expected to have an impact on the polls, in addition to being a global spectacle.

Yet, in the wake of the buzz generated by Modi’s meeting with the Pope, it would be worthwhile to consider the state of Christian minorities in India under the current regime. Christians make up a minuscule 2.3 per cent of the total population.

A fortnight back, the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights (APCR), United Christian Forum (UCF) and United Against Hate released a joint report of their survey on Christian persecution in India, with details of 305 attacks on the community in the past 12 months. While lynchings and attacks on Muslims in India regularly make it to the headlines, atrocities against the scattered Christian community in the Hindi belt often go unreported.

Spike in attacks against Christians
On 26 October, four days before Modi met Pope Francis, Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal wrote a letter to the prime minister asking him “to take effective steps to contain violence against Christians”.

The same week, Metropolitan Archbishop Peter Machado of Bengaluru issued a press release reiterating his opposition to the Karnataka government’s decision to take a survey of Christian missionaries and institutions functioning in the state. Singling out one community before the introduction of a bill to prevent ‘forcible conversions’ is being interpreted as “intimidation”.

While there are enough provisions in the statutes against conversions by allurement or fraud, the amended anti-conversion laws enacted in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, criminalising and making even legitimate conversions for purposes of marriage a non-bailable offence, have been used as instruments for harassment against minority communities. Such laws have also empowered self-styled vigilantes to act in tandem with the state machinery, most notably in Uttar Pradesh.

In Karnataka, a state with a large network of institutions run by the Church, the community has been feeling the pinch of targeted profiling. The Bengaluru Archbishop has previously spoken out against the state administration’s dilly-dallying of clearances and the difficulty in obtaining building permits. Lately, there have been many instances of vigilantes disrupting prayer meetings, dubbing them conversion exercises. Independent churches are particularly vulnerable on this account as they operate outside the institutional framework of the organised Church.

Of late, however, even institutions run by the Catholic Church have increasingly come under attack. Only last week, the 49-year-old Christ Jyoti School in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, was served a 15-day ultimatum by the Bajrang Dal to install an idol of Goddess Saraswati in its premises. On 10 October, sisters Gracy Monteiro (a school principal) and Roshni Minj of the Mirpur Catholic Mission in Uttar Pradesh, along with their driver, were attacked by vigilantes of the Hindu Yuva Vahini in Mau before being dragged to the police station where they were held unlawfully.

Sending children to convent schools has long been a badge of pride for the middle class in the Hindi belt, but these same institutions are now being targeted by vigilantes.

BJP, RSS and Christians
The prime minister’s diplomacy with the Pope isn’t replicated at the lower levels, as BJP leaders regularly express hate against Christians. Madhya Pradesh lawmaker Rameshwar Prasad made news recently for asking Hindus to stay away from ‘Father and chaadar’ (a reference to Christian priests and the cloth offered at Muslim shrines) in his Dussehra address. On 25 October, participating in a debate on NDTV, BJP spokesperson Dr Vaman Acharya remarked that ‘Christianity is a fraud’, attributing the statement wrongly to George Bernard Shaw, before making more disparaging remarks against the community.

The day Modi met the Pope in the Vatican, RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale called for an end to conversions while interacting with the media in Dharwad. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had also made similar remarks in the second week of October in Uttarakhand.

The 17 October issue of the RSS-linked weekly Panchjanya termed Pope Francis’s 2019 apology on behalf of the clergy, for incidents of sexual exploitation of nuns and children, “a formality under pressure”.

BJP’s game plan in Kerala
Pope Francis’s India visit is being keenly awaited in Kerala, and while his meeting with PM Modi was underway, BJP state president K. Surendran called on Cardinal Baselios Cleemis.

The Catholic Church in Kerala has made common cause with the Sangh Parivar on ‘love jihad’. And when Pala Bishop Joseph Kallaranghatt’s allegation of ‘narcotic jihad’ by Muslim was decried by both the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), the BJP came to the bishop’s support.

The BJP is banking on Syrian Christians to back it in 2026 to achieve a critical mass with the clergy and a section of the community increasingly uneasy at the prominence gained by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) within the UDF. Although the Christian community, by and large, switched from the UDF to the LDF in the 2021 assembly election, the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s belated decision to challenge the striking down of an 80:20 minority scholarship quota (in favour of Muslims) in the Supreme Court has led to strong resentment, especially among the clergy championing it.

Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post.

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