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An unqualified apology from a Christian community to Hindus worldwide, which also denounced proselytisation by Christian missionaries, has triggered a debate among pastors across the United States.
The apology, tendered by Right Reverend J Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is arguably the first of its kind by a major Christian congregation, and was issued 'for centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them.'
While some Episcopal Christians have protested against the apology, made during an Indian-style Mass complete with aarti and kirtans, on January 19 in the presence of over 100 Hindu spiritual leaders and lay people, organisers of the event insist it was the right step in the right direction.
'I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,' Bruno, who owing to a personal emergency could not be present, said in a statement that was read out by the Right Reverend Chester Talton.
'In this spirit, and in order to take another step in building trust between our two great religious traditions, I offer a sincere apology to the Hindu religious community.'
The apology was made in a ceremony to mark three years of dialogue between Hindus and Christians, initiated among others by the Reverend Karen MacQueen, better known as Mother Karen. She is deeply influenced by Vedanta philosophy, and fiercely opposes the conversions-for-kindness methodology.
The apology was a small act compared to Pope John Paul II's unprecedented apology for the sins of Christians through the ages, made a few years ago.
'We forgive and we ask forgiveness,' the Pope had said during a historic Lenten liturgy in St Peter's Basilica. He, along with Vatican officials, pronounced a 'request for pardon' for 'sins against Christian unity, the use of violence in serving the truth, hostility toward Jews and other religions, the marginalisation of women, and wrongs - like abortion - against society's weakest members.'
"In our case, the apology is part of the dialogue we initiated with a few Hindu leaders three years ago," Mother Karen said. "The healing process will continue," she said but she wasn't sure certain Christian denomination will change their conversion tactics.
The ceremony started with the Hindu priestess Pravrajika Saradeshaprana blowing into a conch shell three times, in a call to Hindu and Episcopal religious leaders to join the ceremony.
The rare joint service included chants from the Temple Bhajan Band of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and a moving rendition of Bless the Lord, O My Soul sung by the St John's choir, the LA Times reported.
The newspaper, which gave considerable space to the story, however erroneously, reported that Hindus had received the Holy Eucharist. "They ran a correction," Mother Karen said. But by then many Christians were upset.
"The fact remains that there were many Indian Christians who received the Eucharist," she said. The newspaper mistook them for the Hindus, she said chuckling.
In its correction, the LA Times wrote, 'Hindu-Episcopal service: An article in Sunday's California section about a joint religious service involving Hindus and Episcopalians said that all those attending the service at St John's Cathedral in Los Angeles were invited to Holy Communion. Although attendees walked toward the Communion table, only Christians were encouraged to partake of Communion. Out of respect for Hindu beliefs, the Hindus were invited to take a flower. Also, the article described Hindus consuming bread during Communion, but some of those worshippers were Christians wearing traditional Indian dress'.
Bishop Bruno's stand against 'proselytising' has meanwhile impressed many Hindus. Swami Sarvadevananda, of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, called Bruno's stance 'a great and courageous step' that binds the two communities.
'By declaring that there will be no more proselytising, the bishop has opened a new door of understanding,' he told the LA Times. 'The modern religious man must expand his understanding and love of religions and their practices.'
Mother Karen, who has visited India many times since her first sojourn at Mother Teresa's hospice in Kolkota, wishes to see Hindu-Christian dialogue in India. "But it cannot be done effectively when some church leaders are going around converting people in the name of charitable work," she said.
"There are enough Christians in the world. What we need to see is more Christians leading an exemplary life and truly loving their fellow man."
In her homily 'A Vision for Inter-Religious Dialogue' at the church event, Mother Karen said in both Hinduism and Christianity, devotees believe that 'the Divine Presence' illuminates the whole world.
Mother Karen, who continues to study Hinduism, also said both faiths revere 'great figures who embody the divine light, who teach the divine truth.'
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