MUMBAI, India – An archdiocese in India is saying a pastoral letter by the archbishop has been taken out of context by the nation’s media, amid complaints from a leading Hindu organization that the Catholic Church is trying to destabilize the government.
Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão of Goa and Daman, who also holds the honorary title of Patriarch of the East Indies, wrote the letter on May 20, and it was read in all parishes in the archdiocese on June 3.
The 14-page document was on the Church’s preferential option for the poor, but also touched on the current social and political situation in India, which will hold national elections in 2019.
“At the time of elections, the candidates confuse the minds of many people by making false promises. And the people, on their part, often sell their precious vote for selfish, petty gain. Today, our Constitution is in danger, reason why most of the people live in insecurity,” the pastoral letter stated in a section on the social mission of the Church.
Ferrão also noted the bishops of India have said the Church “should diligently promote and stand by values like secularism, freedom of speech and freedom to practice one’s religion enshrined in the Indian Constitution.”
The archbishop said in recent times “we see a new trend emerging in our country, which demands uniformity in what and how we eat, dress, live and even worship: a kind of mono-culturalism.”
“Human rights are under attack and democracy appears to be in peril. The various minorities fear for their safety. In short, respect for law is frankly on the decline in this country,” Ferrão said.
The Goa archbishop’s letter appeared just a few weeks after a pastoral letter from Archbishop Anil Joseph Couto of Delhi complained about a “turbulent political atmosphere” in India.
Couto was attacked by politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who accused him of inciting inter-religious tension in the country.
The Hindu nationalist party took power at the national level in 2014, and India’s religious minorities have since complained of increased harassment and discrimination.
One BJP member of parliament called on the government to break off diplomatic ties with the Vatican because of Couto’s comments, and a group of Hindu nationalists trampled a photo of Pope Francis near Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi.
On Wednesday, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) — a rightwing Hindu nationalist group with ties to the BJP — claimed the Vatican was conspiring with local Indian Churches to destabilize the government.
“The Constitution of India is in danger because of the attacking political stand of the Church and its agenda of religious conversions,” said VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain.
“This is not the Church’s viewpoint, but a conspiracy to install governments which can run on the directions of the Vatican. Like the ‘award-wapsi gang,’ the Church too is acting like a contract killer to destabilise the elected governments,” Jain said.
The “award-wapsi gang” refers to artists and academics who have returned government awards to protest the growing intolerance in the country.
According to the 2018 report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, religious liberty has “continued a downward trend” in the country.
The report said India’s history as a multicultural and multireligious society “remained threatened by an increasingly exclusionary conception of national identity based on religion,” and pointed out Hindu-nationalist groups sought to “Saffronize” India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus and Dalits, the low-caste members of society formerly known as “untouchables.”
Couto insisted his remarks were not directed at any party, and the Goa Archdiocese also said Ferrão’s remarks were non-partisan.
“One or two statements of the bishop have been taken out of context and made an issue out of,” said Father Joaquim Loiola Pereira, the archbishop’s secretary.
Speaking to reporters in Goa on June 5, Pereira said the focus of the letter was on poverty.
“Poverty in different forms: It’s not only economic poverty – persons who are dying of hunger and poverty which is emotional,” the priest said.
Goa – a former Portuguese colony which was annexed by India in 1961 – is considered a center of Catholicism in the country, and Christians make up about a quarter of the population in the state, compared to less than 3 percent for India as a whole.
Although the BJP holds power at the state level in Goa, the party is more solicitous of religious minorities than it is nationally. Six BJP members of Goa’s legislative assembly are even Catholic.
However, the party has accused the Church of trying to influence local elections, and last year complained about an article published in a Goa Catholic newspaper which compared politics in modern India with 1930’s Germany.
Despite these tensions in the past, the former head of Caritas India insisted Ferrão’s pastoral letter was just highlighting the issues affecting the lives of people in society.
“If you like to call it ‘politics’ then it is a kind of politics, but nothing to do with government and any party,” Father Frederick D’Souza told Crux.
D’Souza – who finished his term at Caritas India in April – pointed out Ferrão issues a pastoral letter tackling social issues every year.
“One can clearly see in the pastoral letter how the archbishop is deeply concerned about the rights of the poor and the marginalized communities. He is fully within his right to raise such alarm as a leader of the community,” the priest said, pointing out the disproportionate role the archdiocese plays in Goa society.
“The Church contributes very significantly to education and health, even though she is a minority. She has contributed tremendously to nation building through these and many other services,” D’Souza said.
“So as a responsible citizen, does she have no right to raise these issues? Speak against wrongs? Historically, the Church has always come out on the side of the poor,” the priest told Crux.
D’Souza said Ferrão’s pastoral letter is “a kind of anguish-led, concern-led, utterances of a citizen, who also is a spiritual leader.”