Because of the vast scale of it, and also because its victims tend to be impoverished and already marginalized for other reasons, anti-Christian persecution deserves to rank as one of the transcendent human rights issues of the day.
Other religious groups are imperiled too, and if a defense of religious freedom is to succeed, it has to apply across the board. Yet because of their numbers and their rapid growth in dangerous neighborhoods, Christians are especially exposed. According to watchdog groups, there are 200 million Christians today living under the threat of physical violence, arrest, torture, imprisonment and death.
In light of that epidemic, there’s a burning need to raise consciousness about the threats Christians face. At the same time, it’s also important to be scrupulously honest about the nature of those threats, so that fair-minded people don’t come to see this as a PR effort, or an exercise in wedge politics, rather than a genuine human rights calamity.
In that spirit of candor, here’s an ugly truth to confront: There are occasions when Christians meet the enemy, and it’s us.
A story out of India, which has been told in Crux over the past few days by our Mumbai-based correspondent Nirmala Carvalho, makes the point.
Over the weekend, news broke that a 54-year-old Catholic bishop named Prasad Gallela had been kidnapped and savagely beaten by unidentified assailants, along with his driver, before the two men were released.
Scouring the scant information available about Gallela, I noticed he once served as a priest in the Diocese of San Angelo in Texas. I reached out to retired Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, who knows Gallela well and who gave a glowing review of his pastoral and human qualities, saying he puts a “human face” on the Gospel.
At the beginning the motives for the attack weren’t clear, and it was not difficult to see it in light of a broad pattern of anti-Christian hostility in India fueled by militant Hindu nationalism.
Last summer, my Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I spent time in India, meeting with victims. We had one especially gut-wrenching session with a group of illiterate underclass women who lost their husbands during an orgy of violence in Kandhamal in 2008, often in the most grotesque fashion possible.
In that context, it was easy to assume the same anti-Christian contagion had swept up Gallela.
On Tuesday, however, Carvalho reported that the truth apparently lies elsewhere. In fact, Gallela was attacked by a gang of 14 people, including three of his own priests, who were angry the bishop had denied them desired positions during a recent round of personnel transfers.
One of those priests, Father Raja Reddy, had asked for the position of “procurator” in the diocese of Cuddapah, which would have allowed him to exercise powers in the name of the bishop, but was turned down.
As the story continues to unfold, things get even worse.
On Wednesday, Crux learned that one cannot rule out a caste dimension to the attack. The bishop, as it turns out, is a Dalit, meaning one of the “untouchables” under the ancient Indian caste system, while at least two of the priests arrested in the case come from the country’s privileged upper castes.
Although Christianity has grown in India in part as a means of liberation from the caste system, that doesn’t mean its prejudices aren’t found in the Christian community too. Dalit and Tribal bishops sometimes report difficulties in being accepted by their priests and laity, who can’t shake free of the bias that such people aren’t suited to lead, and certainly not to tell anyone from the higher castes what to do.
When the mother of a Dalit priest died in the 1990s, Catholic members of the upper caste refused to allow a funeral procession to use the town’s main road, and even the local bishop failed to broker a compromise. In 2009, when Dalit Catholics demanded their own parish in Tamil Nadu, hundreds of upper caste Catholics went on a rampage, attacking the Dalits and burning 30 of their huts.
Thus, it’s highly probable that Gallela was a victim of petty bureaucratic resentments among his own clergy, overlaid with ethnic hatred.
Three thoughts about all this suggest themselves.
First, it’s clear the fact that Christians face persecution on a staggering scale does not afford them any automatic guarantee of virtue. Under the right circumstances, Christians too can be the authors of oppression, not just its victims.
Second, the priests involved, assuming the accusations hold up, are not only guilty of several felonies and canonical offenses, but they’ve also put their fellow Indian Christians at greater risk by encouraging a climate of denial.
The next time a Christian in India is roughed up, and the police, who are often aligned with the Hindu nationalists, want an excuse to look the other way, they can say, “Maybe they just did it to themselves again.”
Third, the fact that Gallela’s attackers were Christian does not make him any less a victim of anti-Christian persecution. I know that may seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me.
In my interview with Pfeifer, he told me he and Gallela had talked about the difficulties in his Indian diocese, how old caste prejudices still flare up. Gallela had other choices in life – he could have stayed in the United States, he could have continued teaching in the seminary, or he could have asked for another assignment as a bishop. Yet he went where he was sent, feeling it was what God was asking, and he’s trying to lead his diocese with integrity.
In other words, Gallela accepted the risks of his situation on the basis of his Christian beliefs, and the fact that those who made him pay for it are also Christian doesn’t change his end of the equation.
Admittedly, telling these truths doesn’t make for a clear-cut tale of innocent Christian victims and their persecutors, because it shows you can find Christians on both sides of that divide. But it does, perhaps, carry us a bit closer to the realities of life in the global Church.