MUMBAI, India — A group of Catholic bishops made a courtesy visit to India’s new president on August 24, a meeting Cardinal Baselios Cleemis called “cordial, positive and gentle.”
Cleemis, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, led the delegation to meet Ram Nath Kovind, who was inaugurated into the largely ceremonial office on July 25.
According to a statement, Cleemis said the Christian community, though a small minority, has always served the country and will continue to serve the county in health care, education and other areas, in particular, serving the poorest of the poor and the marginalized.
There are just under 30 million Christians in India – less than 2.5 percent of the population – and about half of them are Catholics, belonging to both the Latin and Eastern rites.
“We pray,” the Cardinal said, that “God may bless you that you may continue to serve the Country through your ministry.”
Kovind was nominated to the office by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, incidents of harassment against Christians have increased, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
Kovind is a Dalit – once known as “untouchables” – the same marginalized caste most Christians come from.
As spokesman for the BJP in 2010, he opposed granting Muslim and Christians belonging to the Dalit caste benefits from government assistance programs similar to affirmative action which applied to the caste, and are only available to Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists.
“Islam and Christianity are alien to the nation,” Kovind said at the time.
However, Kovind is president now, not party spokesman.
He told the bishops he appreciated the work the Church does for the poor and the downtrodden. The president also reminded them that while the whole world speaks of development, “spirituality in this development was also important.”
Kovind appealed to the Bishops to continue this spiritual development. He also said India was a secular country, where there was “no minority and majority.”
Cleemis later told Crux these words had to be taken in a positive light.
“Our honorable president meant we are one people, one nation. No discrimination. The president also said that the doors of Rashtrapati Bhavan [the official presidential residence in India] are always open for us and extended an open invitation to visit the president anytime,” the cardinal said.
The delegation visiting Kovind also included Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay; Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi; Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão, Vice-President of CBCI; Archbishop Abraham Viruthakulangara of Nagpur; Archbishop Albert D’Souza of Agra; Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi; and Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, SFX, Secretary General of CBCI.
The three cardinals presented the president with gifts: Cleemis gave the president a bouquet of flowers, while Gracias gave him a garland and Toppo gave him a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.