MUMBAI, India – A Catholic bishop in India has denied he was trying to “polarize” people after the Election Commission of India asked him to explain his letter calling for prayers for the victory of ‘humane leaders faithful to the Constitution’ during elections in the state of Gujarat.

Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar wrote the letter ahead of elections scheduled over two rounds on December 9 and 14.

“The results of this election are significant, and they will have repercussions and reverberations throughout our beloved nation. It will influence the future course of our country,” Macwan said in the November 21 letter.

Gujarat is a state in western India, with a population of over 60 million people. India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, served as chief minister of the state from 2001-2014, and it is considered a stronghold of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

On Sunday, while campaigning in the state, Modi also attacked the contents of Macwan’s letter.

“Those who are releasing Fatwas against ‘nationalists’ should see the effort we undertook to get Father Tom back. Father Tom was guided by his love for Lord Christ. We got Father Tom back. We also got back Father Prem, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan,” the prime minister said.

He was referring to the release earlier this year of  Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped by Islamists in Yemen on March 6, 2016, and Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in June 2014, and released the following year.

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Since the BJP and Modi took over the national government in 2014, incidents of harassment against the small Christian minority have increased. Across India, Christians have been detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship have been vandalized.

The harassment has not only been against Christians. The nation’s far larger Muslim minority has also faced attacks, often by “cow vigilantes” who have attacked Muslim butchers for slaughtering cows.

In his letter, Macwan said the “secular and democratic fabric” of India was at stake in the election.

“Human rights are being violated. The constitutional rights are being trampled. Not a single day goes without an attack on our churches, church personnel, faithful or institutions,” the archbishop wrote.

Macwan said “nationalist forces” were on the verge of taking over the country, and that there is “a growing sense of insecurity” among India’s minorities.

He asked the people to pray for the election of people “who would remain faithful to our Indian Constitution and respect every human being without any sort of discrimination.”

The archbishop encouraged the recitation of the Rosary, saying it would help save India from “nationalistic forces.”

The letter caused a leader of the BJP to call for Macwan’s arrest, saying he was “inciting religious hatred.”

The Legal Rights Observatory brought a complaint to the Election Commission, saying the archbishop was seeking to “divide people on the basis of caste and creed.”

The archbishop clarified to the commission there was “no malicious intent” behind the letter, and has noted to local media that Christians are only 0.5 percent of the population in Gujarat.

“This is not first time I have written a pastoral letter,” Macwan told Crux. “Earlier, too, whenever elections were held, or even in case of natural calamity. We write pastoral letters all the time.”

The archbishop said in asking people to pray for good leaders, he was not favoring any party or person.

“The Church never decides. We write to ask people to vote according to conscience. I would never polarize people,” he said.

Macwan also defended his patriotism.

“I am a nationalist. I tried to join the army prior to joining seminary,” he said.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India issued a statement in the wake of the controversy.

“One sentence has been taken out of context and blown out of proportion,” it read.

“We love our country, and our loyalty to the country need not be put on test because of one word,” the CBCI statement said.

In July, the bishops’ conference hosted an interfaith gathering to discuss threats to India’s secular government.

The participants – including Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs – 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.”