MUMBAI, India – Hindu politicians in India have accused a Catholic archbishop of stirring up religious tensions for issuing a pastoral letter mentioning the “turbulent political atmosphere” in the country.
Archbishop Anil Joseph Couto of Delhi wrote the letter on May 8 and asked that parishes begin a prayer campaign on May 13, ahead of India’s 2019 general election.
Couto is also the secretary-general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India.
“We 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 wrote in the letter.
“It is our hallowed practice to pray for our country and its political leaders all the time but all the more so when we approach the general elections. As we look forward towards 2019 when we will have new government, let us begin a prayer campaign for our country from May 13,” the letter continues.
The archbishop attached a prayer to the letter, that all churches were instructed to read out during Mass.
“May the ethos of true democracy envelop our elections with dignity and the flames of honest patriotism enkindle our political leaders. This is our cry, Heavenly Father, in these troubled times as we see the clouds eclipsing the light of truth, justice and freedom,” the prayer said.
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.
India’s Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, said on Tuesday that he had not seen the letter, but added he wanted to emphasize “India is one of those countries where minorities are safe and no one is allowed to discriminate on the basis of caste and religion.”
“Sometimes questions are asked to us. We will not compromise on the unity, integrity and sovereignty of this country at any cost and this is our top priority. We are also committed to strengthening the bonds of amity, affinity and harmony in our society,” the Home Minister added.
Meanwhile, another government minister, Giriraj Singh, said “every action has a reaction.”
“I won’t take a step that disrupts communal harmony. But if the church asks people to pray so that Modi government isn’t formed, the country will have to think that people from other religions will do ‘kirtan puja’,” he added, referring to a Hindu act of worship.
The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, accused the archbishop of stirring up sectarian tensions.
“It’s not appropriate if anyone is talking about polarizing people in the name of religion,” Shah said. “I personally believe that no one should say things like this. For a religious person to make such comments cannot be accepted and appreciated.”
A leading member of the party, Subramanian Swamy, on Wednesday called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break off diplomatic ties with the Holy See because of the letter, and urged that the foreign ministry “seal” the Vatican embassy in New Delhi because “the archbishop is a formal nominee of the Vatican.”
Couto told Crux the letter did not endorse any political party or candidates.
“Ahead of the General Elections of 2019, I have issued this letter. It is usually done a year in advance, asking for prayers for our beloved country,” the archbishop said.