MUMBAI, India – India’s leading cardinal has called the country’s controversial Citizen Amendment Act “a cause of great anxiety for all citizens.”

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), made his comments on Jan. 8 at a ceremony in Benaulim, Goa, inaugurating a new extension of the secretariat of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI).

The CBCI is for all bishops in India – Latin and Eastern Rite – while the CCBI is for the country’s Latin Rite bishops.

The Citizenship Amendment Act was passed on Dec. 12 by India’s parliament, and establishes a mechanism for undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to gain Indian citizenship. However, the law only applies to Hindu, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, meaning Muslims are excluded.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014, has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

Tens of thousands of people have protested the law in a series of demonstrations over the past for weeks, claiming the law is undermining the country’s secular constitution. Over two dozen people have died in the protests.

“There is a danger that there could be a polarization of our peoples along religious lines, which is very harmful for the country,” Gracias said about the new act. “It is the responsibility of all to promote solidarity and respect for all in our country.”

The cardinal was reiterating a point he made on Dec. 27, when he said the ongoing controversy and demonstrations and counterdemonstrations concerning the Act “could harm the country.”

“There is no harm in backtracking, changing course if this is necessary for the good of the country and our people,” Gracias added at the time.

The cardinal’s words were cited by Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, the president of the All Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights. Karnataka is a southern state of India.

“We wish to stress the point that the Christian community will continue to work for the betterment of all the citizens without any discrimination and will continue to build the nation based on equality, justice and fairness. And we also express our solidarity with those who have been discriminated against on the basis of religion, and assure them of our support and fellowship that justice may be granted to them and that all of us may live as one family as brothers and sisters in this our Mother Land,” the archbishop said in a statement.

“This Citizenship Amendment Bill has caused misunderstanding among the people and led to lots of violence and uproar in Assam, and now it’s slowly spreading to other parts of the country as well,” Machado’s statement said.

“While appealing to the citizens to maintain peace and harmony, and that they should not recourse to violent methods to fight for their cause, we appeal to the central government to grant citizenship to the illegal migrants not on the basis of their religions, but on the merit of each individual case,” he continued.

Although critics have charged the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with trying to further Hinduize the country, party officials say the Act is meant to protect persecuted religious minorities, and Muslims are excluded because the three countries covered by the legislation have a Muslim majority.

The leader of the BJP, Jagat Prakash Nadda, met with Christian leaders in New Delhi on Monday to explain the government’s position.

Father Denzil Fernandes, director of Indian Social Institute, told the National Herald that Nadda said the government was trying to forge a humanitarian response to the problem of illegal migrants living in India.

However, participants noted that Muslim minorities – including Shia and Ahmadiyya – are also persecuted in the Sunni-majority countries.

“We expressed concerns about the Act. We told him that we have problems with the selective nature of choosing certain communities of certain countries. We argued that if such a law should come about, it should be religion-neutral,” the priest said.

“The law cannot be selective. There are Burmese refugees also who are persecuted. Any law which is based on religion is highly problematic. The law should be expanded,” Fernandes said.

Hindus make up nearly 80 percent of India’s population, with Muslims being by far the largest minority, at nearly 15 percent. Christians make up just 2.3 percent, Sikhs are 1.7 percent, while Buddhists, Jains and Parsis are less than 1 percent each.

Muslims and Christians often bear the brunt of discrimination in the country, since they are considered by many Hindu nationalists to be “foreign” and their adherents are often from a low-caste background. Under Indian law, Muslims and Christians are ineligible for affirmative action-style policies aimed at helping lower caste Indians.

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