MUMBAI, India – Catholic officials in India have rejected accusations that a retreat center in the southern state of Karnataka is promoting the conversion of Hindus.
Sharan Pumpwell, the secretary of the ultranationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad, called for the state government to shut down the Divine Call Center in Mulki, claiming it was seeking converts by “insulting the Hindu religion.”
He also called on local police to press criminal charges against Father Abraham D’Souza, who heads the center, accusing him of “forcibly converting” a local Hindu.
“Hindus and the Christians are living with mutual respect, love and peace. Some unwanted organizations are trying to destroy the peace and unity between Hindus and Christians by their involvement in conversions,” Pumpwell said.
D’Souza said the person in question came to the retreat center on his own and was now “being manipulated by communal forces for their agenda.”
“There is absolutely no conversion. No baptism. He wants to come again too. This is false, baseless and motivated allegations,” the priest said.
Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
Since then, incidents of harassment against religious minorities have increased, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing converts, and changing religion requires extensive paperwork. For the Catholic Church, adherence to these laws is taken seriously, even if the process is onerous.
Karnataka is just 1.87 percent Christian, about half the national average in India. However, Christianity is much more prevalent in Mulki, where Christians make up nearly 5 percent of the population.
The Divine Call Center is operated by the Society of the Divine Word, and it conducts regular weekly retreats – twice a month in the Konkani language, once a month in English, and once every three months in the Kannada language.
D’Souza said he wasn’t especially concerned about the latest attacks.
“When the enemy comes – like floods come, rain comes – we can only go into the shelter of the Almighty and seek refuge in Him,” he said.
Father Valerian Fernandes, the editor of the Mangalore-based Rakno Diocesan Konkanni Weekly said the recent trouble in Mulki is being caused by a small minority of the Hindu population.
“There is some noise going on and this particular noise is being made by a particular group which is often called a ‘fringe group.’ This fringe group is taking a particular example and universalizing it, which is neither proper nor founded in truth,” he said.
Archbishop Peter Machado, the president of the Karnataka Regional Catholic Bishops’ Council (KRCBC) said the accusations being leveled against the Divine Call Center are baseless.
“Allegations of conversions are false. We do not indulge in forced, fraudulent conversion. If people come to our churches or prayer services for healing or prayers, they are welcome, but conversion allegations are untrue,” the archbishop told Crux.
“Importantly, the government of India census data reveal no increase in the Christian population, rather there’s a decrease in the Christian population, and this is proof enough” that there are no forced conversions, Machado explained.
“Our shrines and churches are open for everyone – we do not stop anyone who wants to come and pray. At St Mary’s shrine in Bangalore, beginning 30th August, thousands of peoples of other faiths will come to the cathedral during the 9 days in preparation for the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: All come to pray to our Mother, our churches are open for all,” he continued.
Recently, a group of 40 Catholic pilgrims from Karnataka taking part in a 280-mile pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in Velankanni in the southern state of Tamil Nadu were attacked by Hindu militants.
At the time, Machado said the attack “on innocent pilgrims” was unacceptable and “strongly condemned.”
The archbishop demanded suitable action against the attackers and called for curbs on such vigilante attacks against minority religious communities in the country.
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