MUMBAI – An Indian politician has withdrawn a snarky rebuke of Christian clergy in the wake of protests from local Catholic leaders, but not the substance of his criticism, which is that clergy sometimes trade favors from Indian’s Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in exchange for overlooking assaults on religious minorities.
Saji Cherian is currently the Minister for Fisheries, Culture & Youth affairs in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has a substantial Christian population. He recently stirred controversy when he publicly blasted Catholic bishops who’d been invited to a Christmas Day reception with Modi at his residence in New Delhi, saying the prelates had enjoyed wine and cake and forgot all about anti-Christian violence in Manipur in the northeastern part of the country.
Since May, violent clashes between the majority Hindu Meitei community in Manipur and the minority Christian Kuki population has left at least 175 people dead, according to official figures, though some observers believe the real totals are much higher. The violence has included the direct targeting of religious symbols and places of worship, with more than 250 churches of different denominations burned or damaged across the state.
In general, advocates for religious minorities in India, including its Christian minority, often complain that under Modi and his right-wing Hindu BJP party, such violence directed at minority groups has become more frequent and intense.
Speaking at an event shortly after the Christmas Day reception, Cherian charged that the bishops got “goosebumps” from meeting Modi and had gone silent on Manipur.
“Did they urge the Indian Prime Minister to intervene in the matter?” he asked aloud
In response, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) issued a protest demanding that Cherian withdraw the remarks.
Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis, the council president, said the Catholic Church would not cooperate with the state government of Kerala until Cherian walked back his criticism.
“The Minister’s remarks are disrespectful and lacking in common sense. I’d like to officially declare that the KCBC will not cooperate with the state government until the statement is withdrawn,” he said.
Cleemis insisted there was no quid-pro-quo involved in muzzling criticism of the situation in Manipur or anything else.
“Christian leaders are often invited by political dignitaries including the Chief Minister, Prime Minister and Governor for discussions. We often accept such invites. Political parties cannot dictate the terms for Church,” he said.
Earlier, Father Jacob Palappilly, KCBC’s spokesperson, had expressed dismay, stating that the Christian community felt offended by Cherian’s statements.
Palappilly emphasized the importance of responsible speech from those in influential positions and criticized Cherian for his lack of respect towards the constitution. He insisted that attending a party doesn’t signify political alignment, as the bishops attended the prime minister’s reception in order to discuss Christian community services in the country, not to endorse a particular political ideology.
Palappilly also said that it’s a part of the Christian commitment to engage in discussions concerning national service, and asserted that the negative remarks by Cherian were not acceptable to Christians in Kerala.
In reply to the criticism, Cherian said he would retract his quip about the wine and cake, but not the substance of his criticism that bishops should have used the Christmas event to press Modi on protecting minority rights.
“I will not change my political stance. Minorities are being increasingly targeted in this country. The lunch with the prime minister was an opportune moment for Christian leaders to raise the Manipur issue,” he said.
The minister expressed regret over his choice of words about the reception, speaking in a hurriedly called press conference in Kochi, located in Kerala. He came prepared with statistics on anti-Christian attacks in order to justify the political position he tried to convey in his controversial speech.
“Those who love the minority communities have an obligation to protect them. I raised my criticism as I felt the stance taken against the BJP’s approach towards minorities was not enough,” he said.
“Those who participated in the prime minister’s Christmas lunch could have requested him to intervene in the Manipur issue and address their concerns in an amicable manner. I stand firm on that political stance,” Cherian said.
Asked if he would have to withdraw the criticism also if the priests feel hurt over it, Cherian’s reply was firm: “I should lose my head if I have to withdraw it”.
Modi hosted around 100 Christian leaders of various denominations at his official residence on Christmas morning. Several Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai and Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto, who were seated on either side of Modi during the event, were in attendance.
The Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, and Bishop Thomas mar Anthonios of the Syro-Malankara Church also joined bishops of different denominations and Christian leaders from different walks of life at the gathering.