MUMBAI, India — Catholic bishops in India hosted a group of spiritual leaders and intellectuals to discuss fears the country’s secular nature might be at risk.

“I think it was a very important initiative. It is time to stand up to the hate, and to the lynching,” said John Dayal, who was at the meeting, entitled “Collective Action for Dialogue and Social Harmony.”

Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

Incidents of harassment have increased over the past few months, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.

More recently, a spate of killings related to “cow vigilantism” have happened around the country. The slaughter of cows – which are sacred in Hinduism – is illegal in most parts of India, although beef is often eaten by some Dalits (low-caste Hindus previously called “untouchables”) and members of some religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians.

Members of “cow vigilante” groups often attack people accused of slaughtering cows, and several people – predominantly Muslims – have been killed over the past year.

The 40 leaders met to discuss the growing violence and intolerance in the country at the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in New Delhi on July 16.

Dayal said the meeting was important because Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs attended. He told Crux it was “important that we confront the government and ask it to act.”

The meeting took place just hours after Sultan Masih – pastor of the Temple of God Church in the village of Salem Tabri – was shot dead by two motorcycle-borne assailants in Punjab state.

The participants called upon the government to end the sense of impunity which was creating an atmosphere of fear in the country, and said recent developments “threatened not just secularism, but the Constitution and the democratic fabric of the country.”

The meeting agreed on a five-point program of action:

  • The ideology of hate is a reality and needs to be challenged by government, political parties, civil society activists, the criminal justice system, and religious communities in a concerted manner.
  • Religious leadership must act at the grassroots to assert the inherent unity of the people. This will help restore public confidence and remove the mutual suspicion that had started growing.
  • The leadership must generate literature as well as content for traditional, mainstream, and social media to challenge falsehood and hatred.
  • Community leaders must come together at various levels so that tensions can be diffused and trust restored and strengthened. Similarly, national institutions including the National and State Minorities Commissions and other structures must be encouraged to actively work in restoring peace and help strengthen the rule of law.
  • A National Inter-Faith and Civil society convention will be held as soon as possible to discuss the developments and the measures that the government needs to take at the national and state levels.

The leaders called upon the people to “seek strength from India’s deep spiritual reservoirs to end the increasing environment of hate, violence and disregard for the rule of law in which many innocents of religious and marginalized communities have been lynched in recent weeks.”

Earlier on the same day in New Delhi, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, told an all-party meeting that maintaining law and order was the responsibility of state governments, which should take action against the perpetrators of communal violence.

Modi was seeking the support of opposition parties in tackling the issue, saying such incidents had “sullied the image of the country.”

In particular, Modi called on state governments to “deal sternly” with cow vigilantes.

“Some anti social elements have incited violence in the name of cow protection,” the prime minister said. “Those engaged in disturbing the harmony in the country are trying to take advantage of the situation.”

Modi’s words were “welcomed” by the CBCI.

Meanwhile, the Tribune News Service reported on Sunday that relatives of Masih, along with hundreds of members of the Christian community, blocked a local highway for hours, demanding that officials do all they can to bring the pastor’s murderers to justice.

“The murder of Pastor Sultan Masih was an attack on the Christian community,” said Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Diocese of Jalandhar, which includes the village in which Masih was killed.

“Pastor Sultan Masih was targeted by the killers, with the full knowledge that he was a pastor and this anti-Christian incident has deeply wounded and caused insecurity and disturbances in the Christian community,” the bishop told Crux. “We have absolutely no clue about the motive of the murder.”

Mulakkal said he has personally contacted Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh leaders, and “they have all condemned the murder of the pastor and they all expressed solidarity with the Christian community.”

The bishop also sent a delegation – led by the vicar general of the diocese – to the pastor’s funeral on Monday.

Although religious minorities suffer the most from communal violence, the majority Hindu population has also been attacked.

Seven Hindu pilgrims going to the Amarnath Temple in Jammu and Kashmir were killed earlier this month by suspected Islamic militants.

In a statement, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the secretary general of the CBCI, called the attack “dastardly and cowardly,” adding it was “another sign of the flames of violence that seem to be unfortunately engulfing the country.”