MUMBAI, India – Religious brothers and sisters of India pledged to be “engaged with those on the periphery” during the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace’s 17th National Convention held in Hyderabad Sept. 22-24, where they called on church leaders to do more to help.

“The current times are very different and challenging especially for those who speak and act on behalf of people kept poor,” said Sister Dorothy Fernandes, the national convenor of the convention.

She alluded to the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.

Hindu nationalists have been stoking fears over “illegal conversion” for years, and claim Christian groups use their social services – church organizations are overrepresented compared to their percentage of the population in the educational, health, and charitable sectors in India – to illicitly convert Hindus, especially those belonging to the marginalized lower castes.

“The fascist state of mind denies [the right] to speak and act differently, dissent is unacceptable: The one language, one creed, one party program is detrimental to democracy,” Fernandes told Crux.

She said such an agenda puts the very fabric of the nation at stake.

“Diversity and inclusiveness are the core values enshrined in our Indian Constitution. Therefore, the challenge is huge, and the urgency can’t be put off. We need to be awakened to this new reality. Unfortunately, all of us are not aware of these dangerous moves taking place,” she said.

The Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace represents 20 religious congregations from 16 states in India.

In their final statement, they said that in order to wake up the world, religious people “need to be awake to the joys and cries of the world around us and to God’s call.”

“Where we stand, what we see, and how we listen, all matter. A prophetic way is called because when we look at the world, we will not only see incredible love, goodness, beauty and generosity but will also see people and the earth suffering needlessly, begging for a response. We are called to respond,” the statement said.

The statement pointed out the condition of India’s Tribal communities and members of “backward castes” – including the Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables – who besides being socially ostracized, often have their land and livelihoods illegally taken from them.

“As religious committed to justice and peace, we express our concern at the deteriorating situation of our nation on every front,” the statement says.

“Fascism seems to have come to stay. We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic or political. Recently, the ‘Global Human Index’ put India at a pathetic low rank of 132 out of 191 countries evaluated. There are several other global indices today which put India at rock bottom. The poor in India become poorer every day; the rich and powerful continue to profiteer at their expense and amass scandalous amounts of wealth,” the statement continues.

The statement also notes that religious minorities – particularly Muslims and Christians – are targeted with hate speech and persecution, “by a regime which systematically and continuously denigrates and demonizes them with a divisive and violent agenda,” and claimed intolerance is on the rise.

“Unconstitutional anti-conversion laws are center stage today. The four labor codes go against the rights of the workers and clearly favor the profiteering big corporates. The pitiable conditions of the migrant workers came to the fore when the lockdown was announced in March 2020. The fisher workers of Kerala [on the southwest coast] and other parts of the country are fighting against corporates who intend to destroy their livelihood. Unemployment and spiraling inflation have greatly impacted the lives of the poor,” the statement adds.

The Forum also said they were “deeply pained” by the silence of church leaders “on issues which are destroying the democratic, pluralistic and secular fabric of our country.”

“When we talk of ‘Synodality’ today, church leadership in India has still not shown signs of shedding its clerical and patriarchal mentality. Caste discrimination is still practiced within the church; besides, church leadership has not demonstrated the courage and transparency to address some critical issues involving bishops, priests and religious,” the statement says.