MUMBAI – Two incidents involving Catholic priests in recent days illustrate the increasingly complex situation for Christians in India facing a rising tide of Hindu nationalism, with one priest arrested under the country’s controversial anti-conversion laws and another suspended for joining the right-wing BJP party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In one case, a priest in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was detained and eventually charged after going to a local police station to inquire about a church employee who’d been arrested after a complaint from a member of a militant Hindu nationalist group regarding prayers being offered in a private home.
According to observers, local police were originally looking for the employee’s brother, who is also a Christian pastor, based on a complaint from a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organization. Eventually four members of the family were arrested, and, when they phoned Father Sebastian Francis Babu for help, he too was taken into custody.
Bishop Gerald Mathias of Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, told Crux that the arrests amount to “sheer harassment of Christians.”
“The accusation of conversion is baseless,” Mathias said, ascribing the arrest of Babu to “sheer high-handedness of the police, who are simply under control of the right-wing BJP party.”
“The fundamentalists are going around as vigilantes to prevent even prayer meetings and worship of the faithful,” Mathias said. “Police simply arrest Christians without verifying facts, with no evidence just because someone has complained.”
Founded in 1980 though with roots in earlier Hindu nationalist movements, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, stresses the importance of preserving and defending India’s Hindu identity, an ideology sometimes described by observers as a “saffron wave.” Since the party came to power under Modi in 2014, Christians and other religious minorities in India, especially Muslims, have complained of increasing harassment and marginalization.
The BJP is also the governing party in Uttar Pradesh.
“I only hope the judiciary will be more sensible and good sense will prevail,” Mathias said of Babu’s arrest. “Our constitution guarantees freedom for every citizen to profess, practice and propagate religion of his or her choice. In fact, the anti-conversion law in the state is a violation of constitutional guarantees.”
Meanwhile roughly 1,200 miles away in the southern Indian state of Kerala, a Catholic priest of the Syro-Malabar Church, one of the eastern churches in communion with Rome, was relieved of his duties as a vicar on Monday after joining the BJP.
Father Kuriakose Mattam had been the parish priest of St. Thomas Church in a small town in the Idukki diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church. His affiliation with the party was announced by the district leader of the BJP, who is currently running a membership drive.
The leader posted an image of Mattam, 74, to his Facebook page, saying the priest “is of the opinion that there is a wrong impression about the BJP, as many things are not correctly presented.”
Shown wearing a saffron stole, a common symbol of the BJP, Mattam was quoted in the post as saying, “I don’t agree to the common belief that the BJP is not the party for Christians. It is essential for our times that people of all faith should come together. I hope to get more opportunities to work together.”
Shortly afterwards, the Diocese of Idukki released a statement indicating that Mattam had been relieved of his duties. A church spokesperson cited a provision of church law barring priests from membership in political parties.
Canon 384 of the Code of Canon Law for Eastern Churches states, “Clerics are not to have an active part in political parties nor in the supervision of labor unions unless, in the judgment of the eparchial bishop or, if particular law so states, of the patriarch or of another authority, the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good requires it.”
In a video, Mattam defended his decision.
“I follow contemporary issues,” he said. “I don’t find any reason not to join the BJP. I have friendships with many BJP workers. Today I received membership. I have read from the newspapers and have an understanding of the BJP in the country,” the priest said.
In Kerala, Christians constitute about 18 per cent of the state’s population of 34.5 million people. A spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church told Crux that “the diocesan bishop and the authorities concerned will hear Fr. Mattam before further proceedings. We are following up the situation.”
Father Joyce Kaithakottil of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly in the Syro-Malabar Church told Crux that the Mattam case is part of a broader pattern of some Christians, including some Catholic clergy, supporting the BJP.
“There is a fundamental group that is evolving within the Christian community clandestinely joining hands with the fundamental groups of the BJP,” Kaithakottil said. “There is also an anti-Muslim feeling within this fundamental group of Christians.”
Kaithakottil charged that senior bishops in the Syro-Malabar Church, including Cardinal George Alencherry, have at times shown sympathy for the BJP, asking, “Is it right from the part of the leadership to support the BJP publicly? Are they not aware of the Hindutva agenda of BJP and their fascist style of governance?”
The term “Hindutva” refers to the political ideology of Hindu nationalism.
Kaithakottil also told Crux that Mattam, who is reportedly near retirement, joined the BJP after an invitation from a parishioner, describing it as more of an “impulsive” decision than a pre-meditated one.
Some observers believe the BJP is especially anxious to trumpet Christian support now, given a wave of ethnic violence that’s gripped the northeastern state of Manipur in which Christians have become frequent targets of largely Hindu mob attacks. As of mid-August, estimates were that 120 Christians had been killed, with 4,500 buildings and homes belonging to Christians, together with 400 churches, destroyed and around 50,000 believers displaced.