India tolerant? Its Christians beg to differ

India tolerant? Its Christians beg to differ

At the level of sweeping stereotypes, most Westerners tend to think of India and its dominant religion, Hinduism, as bastions of tolerance. Ever since the Beatles traveled to an ashram to study meditation, there’s been a chic about Indian spirituality as the ultimate in “all paths lead to the same

At the level of sweeping stereotypes, most Westerners tend to think of India and its dominant religion, Hinduism, as bastions of tolerance. Ever since the Beatles traveled to an ashram to study meditation, there’s been a chic about Indian spirituality as the ultimate in “all paths lead to the same place.”

One might profitably ask Christians in today’s India, however, whether those stereotypes have anything to do with their reality. The answer you’re likely to get is, “Are you kidding?”

In truth, India’s small Christian minority has felt under the gun for a long time, and they say things have become considerably worse since a political party called the BJP, backed by fundamentalist Hindu movements, swept to power in May 2014.

(Calling the Christian presence “small,” by the way, is relative. Christians comprise around 2.5 percent of the national population, though some put it as high as 4 to 6 percent if house churches and independent movements are counted. India is so huge, however, that even the low-end estimate works out to almost 25 million people.)

Recently an Indian website was created to collect reports of anti-Christian persecution, called Speak Out Against Hate, and it claims that so far in 2015 there’s an average of at least one violent episode every week.

Here are some typical examples:

  • On July 7, a band of Hindu radicals burst into the Jeevan Jyoti Convent School in Isagarh, Ashoknagar, hassling a Catholic nun and beating up a priest. A police report was filed, but so far no action has been taken.
  • On June 28, in Adoni, Kurnool, the Christu Calvary Konda Church was attacked by radicals shouting Hindu nationalist slogans. The mob attempted to assault the pastor and his wife, who were forced to hide until police arrived.
  • A week before, a Catholic shrine in Tangasseri, Kollam, was desecrated. The assailants left behind posters using derogatory language about Christian clergy, and also threatening to bomb a nearby shopping center affiliated with the local Catholic diocese.

In response to such incidents, a cross-section of Christian leaders in January launched a new movement called the United Christian Forum for Human Rights. Lay activist John Dayal presented the initiative at a Delhi news conference.

“2014 was a particularly traumatic year,” Dayal said. “It was conceived in sin, in a campaign based on hate.”

Yet Dayal stressed that the problems facing Christians hardly began with the BJP’s resounding victory in last year’s national elections.

“Since 1997, we have been recording between 150 and 350 cases of violence a year,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who runs the government … the non-state actors and the problems with the criminal justice system remain the same.”

For many Christians in the country, a cataclysm that unfolded in the eastern Indian state of Orissa (Odisha) in August 2008 still colors the way they see their situation.

Early that month, a revered Hindu spiritual leader named Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was assassinated, most likely by Maoist guerillas. Radical Hindus, however, blamed his death on Christians and unleashed their rage on the local Christian population.

In an orgy of violence that quickly spread to 600 villages, half of the 100,000 Christians in the area found themselves homeless, forced to seek refuge in a nearby forest. Some 120 Christians are believed to have been killed, some of them hacked to death by machete-wielding radicals. Three hundred churches were burned along with 6,000 private homes.

During the rampage at least three women were gang-raped, including a Catholic nun. The tragedy was compounded during the exile in the forest, as more Christians died of either starvation or snakebite while waiting to go home.

Dayal said Christians are still waiting for justice to be done for the victims of Orissa.

“Out of 120 killed, there have been only two convictions,” he said. “One was a life sentence for murder, and one just seven years for abduction … as if nobody killed the rest of them.”

While anti-Christian persecution is a global problem, the form it takes in India is especially noteworthy for three reasons.

Religious prejudice is often bound up with ethnicity and poverty. India’s Christians are disproportionately drawn from the ranks of the Dalits, meaning the “untouchables” under the old caste system, and are therefore likely to be poor. By some estimates, 60 to 75 percent of the country’s Christians are Dalits, making them easy targets.

Anti-Christian persecution isn’t all about Islam. The truth is that Muslim radicalism in places such as Iraq and Syria could disappear tomorrow, and that wouldn’t mean that Christians elsewhere are safe.

It’s not just rogue states such as North Korea where Christians are at risk. India is a vibrant democracy and among the emerging superpowers of the early 21st century, with a constitution that guarantees religious freedom, though that’s hardly the reality on the ground.

Dayal says that despite the threats, India’s Christians do not intend to passively accept their plight.

“We claim our rights as children of God and as citizens of the state,” he said, “with the Bible in one hand and the constitution in the other.”

For all kinds of reasons, including India’s capacity to use its growing power wisely, everyone – not just Christians – has a stake in hoping that Dayal and his fellow believers prevail in that effort.

* * * * *

Vatican cardinal hints that pope’s anti-capitalist views may be one-sided, and talks financial reform

Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s top financial official and a staunch conservative, has always been a polarizing figure. One quality of the man, however, has never been in dispute: He speaks his mind.

This week, he did so in a way suggesting a degree of doubt about some elements of his boss’s social agenda.

In a Crux interview, Pell gently hinted that Francis’ sharp anti-capitalist talk during his recent swing through Latin America may have been one-sided.

“The market is far from perfect,” Pell said. “By the same token, we’ve also seen historically unprecedented levels of prosperity achieved because of the global spread of capitalism and freer markets. Growth in China and India, for instance, is real and wonderful.”

“Also, we shouldn’t take our prosperity in the ‘First World’ for granted,” he said. “Overall we have a good standard of living, and we shouldn’t forget that.”

Pell rounded out those comments with an interview with the Financial Times saying that while Francis’ recent encyclical letter on the environment contains “many, many interesting elements,” it should also be noted that the Catholic Church has “no particular expertise in science.”

The occasion for these forays into the media was the release of the first annual financial statement for the Vatican prepared by Pell and his team, which something of a good news/bad news story.

The statement showed an improved financial situation last year. The Holy See ran a somewhat smaller deficit as compared to 2013, when adjusted for more professional accounting standards, and the government of the Vatican City-State posted a strong surplus.

Yet the statement also seemed to invite some of the same complaints as in years past, because some basic data was still missing. For example, the annual operating budgets for the Holy See and the City-State weren’t reported, and neither was the Vatican’s overall standing with regard to assets and liabilities.

For a team that came to power vowing full transparency, there’s plainly still some work left to do.

Pell spoke to Crux about the financial statement, as well as his overall perspective on where the reform effort stands.

The following are excerpts from that interview. Joining the conversation was Danny Casey, a fellow Australian who serves as Pell’s chief of staff and who played a lead role in preparing the annual report.

Crux: What’s the main takeaway from this financial statement?

Pell: We’re off to a good start. There are now so many elements in place that the process [of reform] is irreversible. We’re committed to transparency and international accounting standards.

Your statement says it will take several years to fully implement International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) in the Vatican. Why so long?

Casey: Most public sector entities take about three to five years to do it, which is actually the time frame envisioned in the standards. There are lots of complex steps involved. For instance, we have to determine methodologies for determining asset values. That has to be reviewed and then implemented, which will require detailed analysis for some time. We also have to establish benchmarks for performance, so we know how to evaluate how we’re doing over time.

What we want is a system that will last for the long haul. We had to start by getting the balance sheet right, stating our cash flows properly, and so on.

You came into this pledging transparency, but there’s some basic information not included in the statement. Why not?

Casey: You have to remember that our new budgeting standards have only been in place since Jan. 1, 2015. Our focus for this year was making sure our closing balances were as precise as possible, which has required rigorous review and an awful lot of work over the last 12 months.

Going forward, our aspiration is to produce statements that are fully compliant with the IPSAS standards. Our model is the Swiss government, which puts out an extremely comprehensive annual financial report. It’s a much more complete picture of where things stand.

The statement refers to “high levels of interest and cooperation” inside the Vatican and a “strong commitment to implementing the financial reforms approved by the Holy Father.” Since the beginning, however, there have been reports of resistance in the Vatican. Where do things stand?

Pell: There are certainly still small pockets of resistance, but overall things are much better now. In large part that’s due to the major change brought about in the Secretariat of State through the active cooperation of Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin. He and I meet every week, and we’ve now got a genuine, real, useful working relationship.

To quote US President George W. Bush, are you saying that ‘major combat operations’ are over?

Pell: Well, as the US experience shows, you can never be quite sure, but the situation is absolutely better than before. At the beginning, a lot of people had no real idea of what we were about, and some thought that possibly we might end up reinforcing the worst aspects of the old system. Now I think most see that what we’re implementing isn’t “our” system, it’s the international system. We’ve done a lot of training courses for the [Vatican] staff and tried to keep them abreast of what’s happening, and I think that helps.

Cardinal Pell, there have been some very critical reports out of Australia recently about your record on the child sexual abuse scandals in the church. Has that affected your ability to do your job in the Vatican?

Pell: It’s had no impact whatsoever, so far as I can see. Certainly I’ve got the strong backing of the pope. As I’ve said, I’m prepared to explain my behavior to the Royal Commission whenever they want me to.

In terms of the financial reform, I’m only one cog in what is now a significant wheel. We’ve got a lot of very capable, high-level people in a whole variety of positions. We have a new auditor general who’s recently been appointed, there’s the leadership of the Financial Information Authority (AIF, the Vatican’s anti-money laundering watchdog), the Council for the Economy is working very well, Danny [Casey] is giving good leadership, and we also have a number of young people from McKinsey who are making a wonderful contribution and, I think, are happy to be part of this.

Some observers saw the new statutes for your secretariat recently issued by Pope Francis, which among other things took away direct oversight of Vatican real estate, as a setback for you. Was it a way of trimming your sails?

Pell: No, I don’t think so. Some people in our section would have liked to administer things more directly, but in terms of control and vigilance in the long run, it’s probably better for others to do that.

From the outside, some might think the Council for the Economy simply rubber-stamps whatever you put in front of it.

Pell: We have a cooperative relationship, but this is a very high-level body. It’s formed a few working groups that play a very active role … the audit committee, for instance, is enormously important. I certainly wouldn’t say that the cardinals and independent experts on the council are just “yes men.”

Did you actually go in and examine the books of each of these entities, to make sure their statements were accurate?

Pell: Yes, we did. If we hadn’t, you might say a little provocatively that we would have been relying on hearsay. It’s precisely those checks that allowed us to present these figures with confidence that they’re basically accurate.

Casey: It’s fair to say that people weren’t really used to that level of scrutiny.

What’s the most important objective going forward?

Pell: We have to generate more income. In particular, we need to examine our investments and work them harder. We need to be more efficient and get a better return. We’ve been commissioned [by the Council for the Economy] to set up a working group to examine this and carry it forward.

We also want to encourage the work of the IOR (Institute for the Works of Religion, also known as the Vatican bank). It makes an annual contribution to the Vatican, and we want to assist them in every way possible so in the future they can contribute even more.

This year the IOR provided $54 million. Do you have a target for what you’d like to see it give?

Pell: Well, “more” would mean more than that.

But do you have a number in your head? For instance, $100 million?

Pell: That’s a pretty significant jump. However, one or two people have said to me that if they reorganize successfully, they might be well on their way to such a target.

Pope Francis just returned from Latin America, where he used some fairly sharp rhetoric against economic injustice and the failures of the capitalist system. As his top financial official, how did you react to that?

Pell: First of all, I think one of the reasons for Pope Francis’ disenchantment with the market and with capitalism is its performance in some countries, if not most countries, in South America. If I came from Buenos Aires and saw how the system hasn’t done much for the 21 or so slums that ring the city, I’d be asking for something better, too.

In truth, nowhere in the world do governments leave the economy entirely to itself. Look at the United States and its military spending.

The market is far from perfect … it’s an imperfect instrument. All you have to do is look at debt levels in many countries to see that. By the same token, however, we’ve also seen historically unprecedented levels of prosperity achieved because of the global spread of capitalism and freer markets. Growth in China and India, for instance, is real and wonderful. Also, we shouldn’t take our prosperity in the “First World” for granted. Right now Greece and Portugal may be in trouble, but overall we have a good standard of living, and we shouldn’t forget that.

Do you see any contradiction between Francis’ talk about a “poor church for the poor,” and your emphasis on growing Vatican revenue and improving investment performance?

Pell: One of the best ways to lift up the poor is to improve the economy. If we’re disorganized, incompetent, and poor, we won’t be able to help anyone. Also, what we’re doing is important on a moral level. People look at the Vatican closely, very closely, and they should, to see if we’re behaving appropriately.

Casey: If we don’t realize full value from our assets, we can’t do anything good with resources we don’t have.

You believe Francis agrees?

Pell: Yes, very much so. We couldn’t have done this [report] without the pope’s full support.

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