New Delhi: Narendra Modi Tuesday used his first public meeting with Christians as prime minister to answer critics who found him too silent on attacks on churches and attempts to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.
“My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly,” Modi asserted at the national celebration of the elevation to two Indian Catholics to sainthood.
The Syro-Malabar diocese of Faridabad organized the program along with Carmelites of Mary Immaculate and Congregation of Mother Carmel to mark the canonization of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia, on November 23, 2014.
The prime minister pledged firm action against those indulging in religious attacks and inciting hatred against minorities.
“We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard,” he told some 1,100 people gathered at the Plenary Hall of Vigyan Bhawan (house of knowledge), the Indian government’s premier convention center in New Delhi.
Earlier on February 3, the Delhi police roughed up priests, nuns and lay people as they protested near New Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral over a series of vandalism and arson attacks on churches.
The opposition and Christian groups had accused the prime minister of remaining silent on five churches and a convent school in the national capital. He was also quite on the attempts of radical groups to convert Christians and Muslims into Hinduism.
“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence,” Modi asserted as the gathering erupted in thundering applause.
The prime minister also said his government will gives equal respect to all religions. “India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi. Equal respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian,” he asserted.
Political opponents allege that the prime minister and his government have failed to rein in Hindu extremists who have been targeting minorities.
“I appeal to all religious groups to act with restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance,” Modi said
Since his party came to power, Modi has reportedly warned law-makers of his party in private not to make controversial statements that could jeopardize his agenda of economic reform.Lighting the lamp
The last session of Parliament saw the government unable to push through important legislation because a united opposition demanded an explanation for the “ghar wapasi” (homecoming) campaign being exercised by right-wing groups affiliated to the BJP to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.
Asserting that his “mantra” is development that takes everyone along, he appealed to all religious groups to act with “restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation which is manifest in our Constitution and is in line with the Hague Declaration.”
Modi said development for him means providing food on every table, job for everybody, a house with toilet and electricity for every family and having every child in school.
Reminding the gathering that unity strengthens and division weakens he urged it to support him in “this huge task.”
Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi, who was one of speakers at the function, appealed to the prime minister to grant reservation to Christians of Dalit origin and end an “unjust and discriminatory” law. The Latin rite archbishop later told reporters that he was relieved that Modi sent out such a strong message against attacks on minority communities.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, another speaker condemned the recent attacks on church as “unacceptable aberrations” and asserted those indulging such practices have no space in India. He also assured that the government would bring the guilty to book.
Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien referred to religious tolerance practiced in ancient India and cited the cases of Hindu rulers going out of their way to protect people of other religions. He urged his fellow Christians to view the recent attacks on churches as only aberrations.
Archbishops Andrew Thazath of Trichur, first vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), noted that 72 percent of students in Catholic schools are poor, dalit and girls.
Asserting that Christianity came to India soon after the religion was founded 2000 years ago, Archbishop Thazhath noted that Christian population in the country has declined over the past several decades. “Our schools do not focus on conversion but stand for the development of the nation,” he said in response to allegations that Christians use force and coercion to convert people. He ended his speech saying, “We love our Mother India.”
The program was attended by bishops from all three Catholic rites and Protestant Churches, dispelling the perception that Faridabad diocese’s invitation to Modi had divided Christians in India.
Among those present were Syro Malankara Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas, CBCI deputy secretary general Father Joseph Chinnayaan and Caritas India director Father Frederic D’Souza, who both belong to the Latin rite.
The celebration was preceded by a national seminar on “Religious Witnessing in Contemporary India” moderated by Justice Cyriac Joseph, member of the National Human Rights Commission.
Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Father Jose Kuriedath, one of the panelists, explained how Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara used education to transform Kerala society. Congregation of Mother Carmel Sister Ancilla, another panelist, highlighted how Saint Euphrasia Elavunkal had worked for women’s emancipation through spirituality.