In India, government assurances and persecution of Christians go hand-in-hand
"The silence of those responsible for upholding our constitutional rights and their failure to protect the [Christian] community is indeed baffling."
By Anto Akkara
NEW DELHI—“Three policemen tried to drag me away. But I resisted. Then half a dozen of them lifted me up—with one even choking me by the neck—and put me in the police bus.” His priestly garb gave Father Dennis George little protection, he told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need March 5.
The offense of Father George, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Delhi, was his attempt to join a demonstration Feb. 5 against the desecration and attacks on five Catholic churches in the Indian capital as well as months of Hindu harassment of Christians throughout the country.
The unrest did prod India’s political leader into action. “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly,” declared Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Feb. 17.
“Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” Modi said Feb. 17, while presiding over celebrations here to honor India’s two new saints, Chavara Elias Kuriakose and Sister Euphrasia, who had been canonized last November at the Vatican.
"We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard," Modi proclaimed before an elite Catholic gathering of more than 1,000, including a dozen bishops, and hundreds of priests and nuns.
With this talk, Modi broke his protracted silence on months of violence and harassment aimed at Christians and other religious minorities by Hindu extremists emboldened by the nationalist BJP party’s May 2014 election victory that brought him to power. But the prime minister’s words have had little so far. Hate speech against Christians, public reconversions of Christians and their violent treatment by public authorities have continued unabated.
Modi’s assurances came after continued protests by Christians and secular activists, which culminated in an unprecedented ‘silent’ street march by 140 Catholic bishops Feb. 6 in Bangalore, in the south of India.
“The silence of those responsible for upholding our constitutional rights and their failure to protect the community is indeed baffling,” said a statement by the Indian bishops’ conference released during the march and candle light vigil.
The historic protest followed a fierce police crackdown on Christian protesters in New Delhi on the previous day, Feb. 5, in which Father George got caught up. Women, children, nuns and priests were bundled into the police vans at the gates of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, just as they were preparing a march to the nearby residence of the interior minister to protest the torching and desecration of as many as five Catholic churches in New Delhi in the previous two months.
Even before media finished analyzing the import of Modi’s declarations, a leading Hindu nationalist took aim at a revered Catholic figure Feb. 23. "It's good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa's work had an ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity," said Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the National Volunteer Corps, or RSS, which is considered the fountainhead of the Hindu nationalism espoused by the BJP. The incendiary comments caused a national uproar that was echoed even in the Parliament.
Father George will not soon forget his treatment by police at the gate of the Sacred Heart Cathedral where over 500 lay people had gathered to protest the attacks on Catholic churches.
“When I saw police roughing up people and dragging even women into vans, I (in cassock) moved forward to stop them,” he told Aid to the Church in Need. He added: “now I feel happy that it happened to me. I had a taste of what our people have been experiencing here and there. It has not scared me but only inspired me.”
ACN photo by Anto Akkara: candlelight vigil, Bangalore; photo of arrest of Father George, from his Facebook page.