05/29/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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Attacks on religious freedom "betray ideals of our society"

by p. Babu Joseph, svd

In a long analysis, the spokesman of the Indian Bishops' Conference points a finger at "obscurantist" factions within Indian society who "misinform people about activities undertaken by Christians" and "interfere in a field where only God has a place".

Delhi (AsiaNews) – Indian society is bearing the brunt of "one of the most severe attacks in its history against religious freedom… a fundamental element for every human being" about which "the State had no right to interfere", said Fr Babu Joseph. The spokesman of the Indian Bishops' Conference and director of its office for social communications was analyzing the recent controversy involving Indian nationalists and Pope Benedict XVI about religious freedom in the country. He also considered attempts to approve – State after State – anti-conversion laws that "interfere in a field where the state cannot intervene: the interior life of the person".

Below we reproduce the complete text of his analysis.

For more than two millennia, India has remained multi-religious. But this defining characteristic of the country is now under serious strain because some religious obscurantists have a vision for India far removed from the emerging modern nation.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his remarks made to Amitava Tripathi, India's new ambassador to the Holy See when he presented his letter of credence, said that while India has crossed many milestones in its economic, social and political achievements, it still has to address some concerns regarding religious freedom in some areas of the country. And the pope's observation has drawn several responses in India.

On predictable lines, some organizations criticized his observations claiming that the Pope has overstepped his limits in making reference to something that amounts to interference with the internal affairs of India; the entire matter should have been left to the people of this country to resolve. Some others were more guarded in their responses saying that the Pope need not have said this at the time of Indian ambassador presenting his letter of credence; he could have perhaps chosen another occasion to do so.

The Government of India responded to the remarks of the Pope by conveying "its displeasure" to the charge d'affaires of the Holy See in India. This was necessitated because of questions raised in the Parliament by a leader of the main opposition party who took strong exception to what the Pope asserted about religious tension in some areas in the country.

After the dust settles, perhaps it is good to gather our thoughts on the whole episode to put the issue on hand in the right perspective.

The Pope's references to some of the "disturbing signs of religious intolerance, which have troubled some regions of the nation" are not grossly mistaken, if one is fair to the facts of history. No one can, with a modicum of sincerity, deny the unfolding of the recent history of India where fellow citizens were targeted on account of their religious affiliation. The carnage in Gujarat, the burning alive of Graham Stein (burned alive with his two little sons), the brutal murder of religious men and women, the rape and humiliation of women devoted to God and service to humanity, the burning down of places of worship, bashing up of people who were praying in their homes and places of prayer, and the vandalizing of education and health institutions, are glaring examples for anyone to suspect strongly that there is something amiss there.

What is worse often are the incredulous means employed by some ill-motivated groups to systematically misinform the public "on the real motives" of the members of the Christian community, particularly in its humanitarian work among the needy. There is one refrain – "stop forced conversion" – that is repeated ad nauseam so much so one begins to doubt that if there is nothing else worth talking about the Christian community in India.

That there is so much of paranoia about religious conversion in India – much of it carefully created – is visible from the fact that state after state especially ruled by the main opposition Party at the national level is vying with one another to enact anti-conversion laws. This will, hopefully, according their logic, 'redeem' India from "deviating", making it return to its "original religion".

Cardinal Ivan Dias, the newly appointed Prefect of Propaganda Fide, has very rightly drubbed the attempt of some states to curb religious freedom as "unwarranted". It only betrays the very principles on which our nation is established by the founding fathers. India, as a matter of fact, for more than two millennia has remained multi-religious, and it has become its defining characteristic.

Freedom of an individual or society is incomplete without religious freedom. For, religion is something that touches the very core of a human person and he cherishes it as something very valuable. One should be at liberty to choose a set of religious beliefs and practices to build one's life in a meaningful way. And here the State has no room to intervene except for reasons of public decency and order.

Religious faith is to do with the internal forum of a human person, which does not come under the competence of the State. But that is precisely what some of the States in India are indulging in with apparent immunity. It seems we are returning to the Orwellian times dominated by a Big Brother watching over us to see if we are making the sign of the cross or crossing the sign – zero tolerance for change.

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