MUMBAI, India – Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), met the country’s Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on May 24 in New Delhi as controversy continues over a letter sent by a Catholic prelate ahead of India’s 2019 general elections.
Singh was one of a number of members of the country’s ruling party to object to a pastoral letter from Archbishop Anil Joseph Couto of Delhi in which he said the people of India “are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution and the secular fabric of our nation.”
Couto is also the secretary-general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India.
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 against the small Christian minority – which make up less than 3 percent of the population – have increased over the past few months, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
Several members of the BJP said Couto was “disrupting communal harmony,” and one leading politician even called for India to break off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in response to the letter.
A Home Ministry official described the 20-minute meeting between Gracias and Singh as a “courtesy call” by the cardinal.
Speaking to Crux, after the meeting, Gracias said, “this was a localized pastoral letter, there are 173 bishops in India, and it should be understood in that context.”
Gracias spoke about the mission of the Church in India, where Catholics make up less than 2 percent of the population.
“The Church in India continues to serve in the remotest rural areas in the country, serving selflessly for the poorest of the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, the girl child, women … for everyone without discrimination, through our various apostolates of healthcare, education and welfare,” the cardinal said.
Gracias said the Church in India is not just in the chapel or sacristy or church; the Church mission is also in the streets, and also has a role to play in society and the world; speaking in favor of human rights, and justice and development.
Gracias, who also serves as a member of the 9-person Council of Cardinals which advises Pope Francis, said that when he travels abroad, the question of the treatment of women in India often comes up.
“I am asked about the safety of women in this country and this concerns each of us, and also the image of our beloved nation,” the cardinal told Crux.
The cardinal also did not disagree with the idea that there have been attempts to polarize society in India.
“I must say, yes. Honestly, yes. I do feel that there is more polarization than before. People are being forced to feel that there is a threat to a particular community. That’s not the best for the country – we should work for harmony, integration and dialogue,” Gracias said.