India’s Bishops Close Catholic Schools, 29 August

Pastors respond to increasing
violence against Christians

The following is a translation of an article published on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano Italian edition on 28 August 2008.

A march for peace throughout India: this is what the Indian bishops are asking for in response to the very serious episodes of violence that are still reverberating in this Asian country. And, to demonstrate further against every abuse, Friday, 29 August, Catholic schools remained closed.

The atmosphere in India, and in the State of Orissa in particular, from which news of violent and intimidating acts against Christians is continuing to arrive, remains tense. For the time being the only positive news is arriving from Bargarh, where following the destructive burning of an orphanage, the children who sought refuge in the jungle following the attack, are safe and sound. And the two missionaries, whose kidnapping was reported yesterday, are also safe, although injured.

According to what Fr. Joseph Topno, Provincial Superior of the Verbite Missionaries of the Eastern Province of India, told the Agency Misna, Fr. Simon Laksa, a Verbite missionary and director of the youth centre in Duburi, and Fr. Xavier Tirkey, a Jesuit, were beaten by their assailants. It is not clear whether they were then released or whether they succeeded in escaping.

The initiative of keeping Catholic schools throughout India closed on 29 August was announced by the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly for Syro-Malabars.

A communique disseminated after a press conference in New Delhi states: “On 7 September, the Church will observe a day of prayer and fasting for the Christians of Orissa.” The Cardinal also called all Catholic organizations to promote “peaceful processions throughout the country to express a strong protest against the repeated fundamentalist attacks.”

Joining forces for peace

An appeal to all the inhabitants of Orissa to work together for peace and tolerance, “over and above differences of cast, creed and culture”, also came from the bishops of the region, in a discourse of the President of the local Bishops’ Conference.

“The Church of Orissa”, Bishop Thomas Thiruthalil wrote, “strongly condemns the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati”, after “a series of killings of religious figures which in recent years has left the State in anguish, fear and anxiety.”

The bishops, however, confirm their faith “in the legislation of our democratic nation which will ensure that law and order take their course.”

In the meantime, as was mentioned, despite the cease-fire imposed by local authorities, acts of violence are far from being halted, although they seem to have diminished in intensity in comparison with the past few days.

“Armed men”, the bishops of Orissa say, “are continuing to sack and burn churches, convents and seminaries, as well as centers that provide health care and social assistance.”

The principal responsibility for these acts of violence continues to be attributed to the activities of the extreme right group Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the members of its youth branch, the Bajrang Dal.

Criticism of the Indian Government, accused of having been unable to foresee and prevent the explosion of Hindu fundamentalist violence against Christians arrived yesterday from Cardinal Oswald Gracias, President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India. In addition, an appeal to President Pratibha Patil of India was also made by the President of the All Indian Catholic Union, the largest Catholic association of lay people in the country.

Cardinal Gracias posed the question: “How is it possible that the Government did not foresee the situation in time and take the necessary measures to prevent this recurring chaos?”

The Cardinal feels that these episodes “stain India’s image. The international community”, he added, “risks seeing us as a country where the Government is slow in intervening and the police inefficient.”

The Church will persevere

Bishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, Apostolic Nuncio in New Delhi, speaking to Vatican Radio, explained that the Indian Church “is determined and, in spite of the wave of violence, will resume as soon as possible her work for the benefit of all, especially the poorest.”

The bishop said, however, that he was confident with regard to overcoming this crisis: “As happened previously at Christmas also in the State of Orissa, the members of the other communities themselves will be the first to give us a hand” in rebuilding.

“Behind this violence are fundamentalist groups,” the Nuncio said, “attached to Nazi-type ideologies. Their aim is to create and impose a fundamentalist State and in certain States they have found a favorable situation; it is from there that violence spreads.”

Religion is consequently exploited by the violent “as a means of manipulation” and propaganda.

The Nuncio mentioned in this regard that he had heard a fundamentalist leader say on television that he had not incited people to violence but that it would nevertheless be “a good thing, because the Christians prevent others from working.”

“This”, Archbishop Lopez Quintana said, “is an incredible argument but simple people easily let themselves be manipulated.”

One of the strongest charges that Hindu fundamentalists make against Christians is the accusation of having converted by force both individuals and entire villages. A spokesman for the bishops of Andhra Pradesh, Fr. Anand Mutingal, explained to Vatican Radio that “forced conversion are very rare in India”, and in any case cannot be ascribed to Catholics.

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