India celebrates diversity of religions: Nuncio

The program was being held in the backdrop of growing demand for turning into a Hindu nation

Varanasi: India’s ability to celebrate the diversity of religions is one of its distinguishing national images, the Vatican ambassador to India says.

“People professing different religions have lived side by side and face to face in mutual respect and love, shaping the nation together and enriching each other’s lived faith-experiences,” noted Salvatore Pennacchio, who came to India as Apostolic Nuncio nearly five years ago.

The archbishop made the observation on Sunday while addressing leaders of Bahai, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Sikh religions at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Varanasi in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The occasion was to celebrate the 50th year of Nostra Aetate (In our Time), the Vatican document on the Catholic Church’s relation with other religions. Pope Paul VI promulgated it on October 28, 1965 after bishops attending the Vatican II passed it by a vote of 2,221 to 88.

The 62-year-old Vatican diplomat said the Varanasi meet was inspired by the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy, convened by Pope John Paul II, who is now a Catholic saint, in 1986. “The spirit of Assisi has demonstrated to the world a new dimension of peace efforts during the last 29 years, giving rise to a worldwide spiritual peace-movement,” said the nuncio who was a priest for ten years at the time of the Assisi event.

Participants of inter-religious meet

The Varanasi event was addressed by leaders from other religions also addressed the event jointly organized by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) and the Varanasi Catholic diocese.

The program was being held in the backdrop of growing demand for turning into a Hindu nation. Past several months have seen attempts to convert Christians and Muslims into Hinduism.

A Hindu spiritual leader, Swami Yogatrayanand Maharaj from Sanatan Dharma (eternal religion), sharing his views on religious harmony, explained that the essence of all religions is the truth of existence. “There is truth in the niche of our hearts. To know this truth one must make an inward journey. Overcoming ego one experiences peace within, because, peace is the fundamental need of a human being,” the swami said.

Venerable Sumedha Thero, founder president of Indo-Sri Lanka International Buddhist Association, praised India as the “confluence of many religions” and added that Varanasi was one of models for the unity in diversity. The Buddhist religious leader stressed the need for the religions of the world to engage in mutual dialogue.

A Muslim cleric condemned what he said was unholy activities orchestrated in the name of religion. “The crisis we are undergoing today in the name of religion is against the spirit of religious harmony,” said Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani, head of Mufti-e-Banares and Imam Shahi Jama Masjid Gyanvapi, Varanasi.

Swami Anildev, who heads a Catholic ashram in Varanasi, prayed for world peace and asserted that love of God and neighbor are two sides of the same coin. “Hence, they are essential for the wellbeing of all,” said the Catholic priest, a member of the indigenous Indian Missionary Society.

Archbishop Albert D`Souza of Agra, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, urged all to work for a harmonious society.

Nirmala Jain, Aravind Thomas, Guru Dharmveer Singh, Moghbelpor represented Jainism, Christianity, Sikhism, and Bahai assembly respectively. They prayed for promoting love, justice, peace, tolerance, non-violence, and friendship.

A two-member Vatican delegation arrived in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city, Saturday evening to hold a series of dialogues with various religious leaders February 14-16.

They came to Varanasi after holding similar meetings with the Buddhist denominations at Bodh Gaya in the neighboring state of Bihar.

They were welcomed at Nav Sadhana Kala Kendra, the pastoral center of Catholic dioceses in northern India, but Fr. Eugene Joseph, administrator of the diocese.

Father Santiago Michael, a PCID official and a Varanasi diocesan priest, briefed Nostra Aetate’s contribution in bringing the world religions together in the past 50 years.

In his opening address, Fr. Indunil J. Koduthuwakku, undersecretary of PCID, said their coming from Rome, the heart of Christianity, to Varanasi, the heart of Hinduism, was “truly a much awaited and longed-for pilgrimage.” It is aimed at enriching “our own faith traditions through intercultural and inter religious encounters, engagements and events in this holy city,” the Sri Lankan priest explained.

Another PCID member Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune asserted that “diversity is neither enmity nor competition but rather enriching and complementary.” He also condemned atrocious crimes committed against vulnerable people in various parts of the world.

Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai, chairperson of the Indian bishop’s Office of Inter religious Dialogue, reflecting on the contemporary society, said that “one needs to have peace in the heart to be a peace-maker.” He also said cooperation of all religions are required to bring peace in the world.

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