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Heal yourself first, your Holiness

June 10, 2003 12:17 IST

Pope John II is peeved and perturbed but obsessively persistent -- about his declared mission of harvesting umpteen souls in India. According to an Associated Press report from Vatican City published in The Times of India, Mumbai, on June 4, 2003, he told a group of visiting Indian bishops to 'courageously' proclaim the gospel in India notwithstanding --

  • 'Increased activity of a few Hindu fundamentalist groups which are creating suspicion of the church and other religions'
  • 'Unfortunately, in some regions the state authorities have yielded to the pressures of these extremists and have passed unjust conversion laws, prohibiting free exercise of the natural right to religious freedom'
  • 'State support has been withdrawn for those in the Scheduled Castes who have chosen Christianity'
  • 'People experience animosity, discrimination and even violence because of their religious or tribal affiliations.'

The above 'revelations' by His Holiness indicate Frustration with a capital F. And it is understandable because despite the colossal money and missionary effort pumped into this country since the times of St Thomas some 2,000 years ago, the Christian population of India remains below three per cent of the total. The Muslims have always preferred the Koran to the Bible and the Hindus have preferred Ganga jal to church water. That the converts in the Northeast pose a problem for our motherland is, of course, a different matter, though there too the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its Parivar are working to ensure that the imported cross ultimately loses out to the swadeshi trishul.

Nonetheless, the Pope's arrogance in denigrating the laws, the lawmakers and the laity of this country needs to be shredded -- not only to set the record straight but also because 'cut and thrust' seems to be the only language that the Vatican understands.

For instance, we don't recall any howls of protest or hectoring on religious freedom emanating from Rome when, in 1998, an Israeli legislator Nissim Zvili, sponsored an anti-proselytising bill. Instead, the CNN web site reported on March 31 that year that the Israeli move was dropped when 'representatives of 50 Christian evangelical groups agreed to make an unprecedented joint statement promising not to carry out missionary activity in Israel.'

In that statement, the Christian groups said they agree to avoid 'activities which... alienate them (Jews) from their tradition and community.' (Page 26, Christianity in India: The Hindutva Perspective, Hindu Vivek Kendra, Mumbai, second edition, 1999, by Ashok Chowgule, President, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Maharashtra Region).

Nor does one recall Rome howling at Russia when that country passed its bill entitled 'On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations' that gave official status only to the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, and discriminated against many other faiths, including Roman Catholicism and Protestant sects (ibid, page 18).

But when it comes to benevolent, tolerant India, the Vatican shows its fangs. It has now dubbed as 'unjust' the recent anti-conversion measures of the Tamil Nadu and Gujarat governments, decried the Constitution of India provision that only Hindus can get the various benefits earmarked for the Scheduled Castes, given labels to Hindu groups, and mocked our Supreme Court's 1977 verdict that the right to propagate one's religion (guaranteed by article 25 of our Constitution) does not include the right to forcible conversion. (Stanislaus v State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1977 SC 908).

All this indignity on a country that permits full play to the tenets and culture of every conceivable faith. All this insult on a nation whose prime minister did not think it was demeaning to make a special call on the Pope to salve Christian sentiments after the Western world needlessly raged over the killing of missionary Graham Staines and his two sons by a fanatic who is not from a so-called 'fundamentalist' Hindu group. It is the same India that permitted John Pius II to publicly proclaim on its sacred soil his mission of harvesting millions of souls in Asia even as China shut the door on him.

Our ministry of external affairs must protest strongly at the Pope's latest outburst against the country.

The Government of India must tell the Pope unambiguously that India has always been governed by a Constitutional framework and the rule of law, and that legislation is being increasingly based on debate.

His Holiness must be reminded that India itself has never uttered a word against the various sex scandals that have plagued the church in the last few years, nor commented on the church's policies on abortion, birth control or divorces. This is because India believes in live and let live and does not poke its nose into others' affairs that do not concern it.

He must also be reminded that as per the Constitution of India, the right to propagate one's religion in this country is restricted only to the citizens of this country and not to foreigners in whatever guise they assume.

He should be also told that there is no discrimination from the state regarding its treatment of Hindus, Muslims and Christians and Jews. On the other hand, there is evidence that the church in India discriminates against Dalit Christians; in Tamil Nadu, for instance, there is evidence that there are separate pews for Dalits, a separate chalice for Holy Communion and separate burial grounds. (New Indian Express, April 14, 2003)

The Pope should be told, finally, that it is only the Hindus of this country, 'fundamentalists' included, who reiterate that there is an eternal truth but there are many ways to achieve it; that that indeed is the dharma of Bharat and Hindustan and India.

The Pope needs also to be reminded that opposition to conversions is not a phenomenon started by the so-called 'fundamentalist' Hindus. It was way back in 1954 that the Congress party (headed today by the Italian Catholic called Sonia Gandhi) who constituted the Niyogi Commission in 1954 whose report of 1956 sought the virtual end of missionary conversions in India.

Indeed, going back even further, conversions were opposed by the one who was definitely not a Hindu 'fundamentalist' -- by Mahatma Gandhi during whose lifetime several Christian missionaries tried relentlessly to convince him about the uniqueness of Christianity and the infallibility of the Bible, believing that if Gandhi was converted millions of his followers will automatically follow. But Gandhi would not budge. As he told a missionary nurse in an interview on May 11, 1935, 'If I had power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytising.' (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 61, pages 46-47, cited on pages 145-146 in Christianity And Conversion In India, Rishi Publications Varanasi, 1999, brought out by the Indian Bibliographic Centre, Research Wing)

And why did Gandhi want to stop conversions? As he said, 'In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink.' (ibid)

Gandhi's assessment of the fallout of conversion was put graphically as 'cultural demise' in the title of a recent article by Sandhya Jain in The Pioneer, New Delhi. Ms Jain expresses the view therein that conversion cuts off people from their traditional mores and cultural sources of stability while being encouraged to become alienated from their fellowmen.

To buttress her view, Ms Jain recalls that Verrier Elwin, missionary-turned anthropologist, recognised this danger in 1944 when he warned that the rapid pace of conversion of tribes would turn them into a querulous, anti-national, aggressive minority community, with none of the old virtues and few of the new, which would pose grave problems to the future Government of India.

That is precisely what seems to have transpired in the long-rebellious states of Mizoram and Nagaland where, according to page 221of the IBC book cited earlier, the percentage of Christian population according to the 1991 Census was 85.73 of the total in the former state and 87.47 of the total in the latter. More telling, and alarming, was the fact that while the total population of Tripura state in the decade 1981 to 1991 increased by 34 per cent, that of its Christian population rose by 86.84 per cent.

The link between the separatist and terrorist National Liberation Front of Tripura and the Baptist Church in the state has long been suspected. This came out in the open after the police interrogation of a church official who had been arrested in April last with a large quantity of explosives that included more than 50 gelatine sticks, five kilos of potassium, and two kilos of sulphur. The situation in Tripura today thus vindicates what Swami Vivekanand had said long ago: a convert from Hinduism is not only one Hindu less, but an enemy more. (Page 11, Religious Conversions--Frequently Asked Questions, Hindu Vivek Kendra, Mumbai, March 1999)

The supreme irony in this evangelisation business is that the Pope himself is known to be opposed to conversion -- of the intra-Christian kind. Thus, during his visit to the Dominican Republic in South America in October 1992, Pope John Pius II said that as shepherd to Latin America's 395 million Roman Catholics, he must 'take care of the sheep who have been put in my care and protect them from the rapacious wolves.' (Houston Chronicle, October 13, 1992, as cited in Chowgule, ibid, page 29). He was referring to the Protestants and other Christian sects who have, over the years, been poaching on the Catholics. And Reverend M D Ougma, head of the Garo Baptist Convention of Meghalaya said, 'It could be a threat to Christianity if we remain silent to the VHP's game plan of mass conversion.' (Maharashtra Herald, July 11, 1998, cited in Chowgule, ibid, pages 28-29).

If the Pope and his church are thus unhappy about Catholics turning to non-Christian churches and priests, and about converted Hindus going back to their old faith, what moral right does he have to damn India's Hindus who are unhappy when their members embrace Christianity?

Reliable reports say that attendance at churches in the West is dwindling, that churches are being sold away. According to that multi-disciplinary scholar, N S Rajaram, even in Rome, the home of Christianity, church attendances are down to six per cent or less. (The Organiser, May 4, 2003, page 4). So why then is the Vatican not concentrating on retaining its flock instead of trying to harvest more and more souls in India and the rest of Asia?

The answer was given six years ago by Francis Arinze, then a senior Cardinal in the Vatican. 'The task of evangelising all people,' he said, 'constitutes the central mission of the Church. The Church has no other assignment.' (The Examiner, October 18, 1997, cited in Chowgule, ibid, page 35.)

In fact, the Roman Church is so engulfed in its 'central mission' that while it makes noises about inter-religious dialogue -- as Pope John II has now advised Indian bishops -- its concept of dialogue is itself a give-away. Cardinal Ratziner once pronounced that 'A true dialogue with other faiths should not be a journey into emptiness, but a search for the eternal truth revealed in Jesus.' (The Statesman, Calcutta, April 26, 1997, reproducing an article from The Times, London, as cited in Chowgule, ibid, page 41).

All in all, the Papacy would seem to be simply offering salvation with discounts and incentives without seeking redemption itself. The physician is simply not healing himself first.

Arvind Lavakare