The mindless and brazen attacks against Christians are not new. The difference is in the dimension. Today, at any excuse, Hindu fundamentalist organisations let loose their goons on the community with the police acting as mute spectators. In most cases, the reaction of the church and the community is nothing more than to provide the victims with aid and prayers.
When I visited Father Edward Sequeira of Orissa in the Holy Spirit Hospital, I also met Bishop Cheenath, in whose diocese the worst atrocities were committed last Christmas and were repeated this year. When I told him that the All India Catholic Union (AICU) was organising a massive fund-raising drive, he gently said. “Money is not our priority, George, although it is always welcome. What we need is an assurance that these atrocities will not be committed again.”
What could I say to him? Can any of the church leaders give him any assurance at all? And if not, why not? Here are a few reasons.
First, the Christian church is fragmented. I use the word ‘Christian’ to include all her denominations. There are thousands of churches all over India and there is no authority to unite and speak on their behalf. Even the well-organised Catholic church consists of three rites and a host of disparate organisations of the laity. Efforts to set up a body for broad consultation within the church have not borne fruit yet.
Second, the community is fragmented. Despite the tremendous activism of the laity, Christian lay organisations are unable to present a single front. They try to upstage each other, ride piggyback on others’ successes and criticise each other publicly.
Third, there is lack of information, intelligence and political know-how. To respond to a crisis of gigantic proportions facing the community and church we need to be technologically savvy. Every diocese needs a backup of websites, databanks and intelligence-gathering and storing of critical information to be used at the right time. We also need a network of e-mail and sms-users, and conferencing facilities to keep the bishops, heads of religious communities, parish priests and leaders of lay organisations in the loop.
For example, how many of the decision-makers in the community know about the history of violence in Orissa? To quote anthropologist Angana Chatterji, “Savagery against minorities is not new in Orissa. The VHP’s post-colonial history is long and violent.” From Rourkela in 1964 to the gang-rape of Catholic nun Jacqueline Mary, the murder of Father Arul Das and the horrifying burning of Reverend Graham Staines and his sons, the list is long and bloody.
Fourth, the Christian community is lacking in lobbyists within the political establishment. There was a time when Valerian Cardinal Gracias, the former Archbishop of Bombay, could pick up the phone and make an appointment with the Chief Minister. There was a time when there were many Christian members of Parliament. As National President of the AICU, I have met two Prime Ministers and a host of ministers. When the nuns in Gajraula were raped, we called George Fernandes, then the Minister for Railways. The next day he took AICU members in his jeep and visited the nuns to assuage their fears. It did not matter that the Janata Dal was in power. Neither did it matter that he was a Mangalorean and the nuns and AICU leaders were not. Today, the scenario has changed. We are paying a heavy price for our blind faith in the Congress. We have not lobbied with other major parties and we have openly declared our hostility to the BJP.
Fifth, the truth must come out. I can say with all confidence that the Catholic church is not involved in conversions by force, fraud or allurement, although we insist on our fundamental right to practise our faith, share the ‘good news’ and give witness to the teachings of Jesus Christ in our own lives. But it is also true that there are cases of mindless conversions of ignorant, poor, purchasable people whose allegiance is temporary and who are unworthy of being followers of Christ. To stop this, we need to counsel the fringe Christian groups. Only disassociating ourselves from fringe Christian activity will not help.
The present violence against us and our institutions by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal is no different from the bombs of terrorists. Both are expressions of anger, humiliation, discrimination and hurt. Some real, some perceived.
But violence will never, never be an option for us. Let us rather accept the pain, the suffering, and the dying unto oneself knowing that resurrection and a new life are around the corner.
George Menezes was a member of the Pope’s Laity Council and a member of the BJP’s National Executive Council