Is India the next China on religious freedom?

New York

For years, followers of the Dali Lama, the Falun Gong movement, and underground Christian churches have all complained that China gets a “free pass” around the world on issues of human rights and religious freedom, mostly because everyone is eager to cash in on the country's exploding economy.

Today Catholic leaders in northeastern India, which has seen repeated outbreaks of anti-Christian violence in recent months at the hands of Hindu extremists, are saying much the same thing about Asia’s other rising superpower.

“India today is a market that everyone covets,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, located in the northeastern state of Orissa, recently told the missionary magazine Mondo e Missione.

“There are enormous economic interests at stake, so everyone wants to have good relations with us. In such a situation, nobody cares about what’s happening to minority groups.”

One can understand Cheenath's frustration, given the violence that erupted in Orissa beginning on Christmas Eve 2007. Over the next four days, Hindu nationalists attacked and burned five parishes, at least 50 village churches, six convents, three presbyteries, six hostels, two seminaries and a vocational training center, most belonging to the Catholic church. As many as 400 Christian homes were looted and burned.

As is seemingly always the case, accounts differ wildly about how things got started. Hindu extremists claim that local Christians had menaced a swami who moves about the countryside trying to “reconvert” tribal Indians who have become Christian back to Hinduism. Catholics say the real trigger was fear among extremists that a planned public celebration on Christmas Eve would attract more new converts to the church.

Local Catholic leaders such as Cheenath complain that the state government in Orissa, led by the nationalist BJP party, allowed the violence to rage unchecked for four days before intervening. Christian refugees, those leaders say, are still living in tent cities in the surrounding forests for fear of renewed harassment.

The eruption over Christmas was the most severe outbreak in recent memory, but it was hardly an isolated case. In March, two Carmelite sisters were attacked in Maharashtra, in the state of Mumbai. In Madhya Pradesh, Christians report more than 100 attacks of varying intensity since 2003. Meanwhile six Indian states have now adopted new “anti-conversion” laws which, in various ways, seek to restrict the activity of Christian missionaries and other faith groups.

Cheenath also makes another explosive charge – that the real motive for the anti-Christian pressures in northeastern India is not religious but social. What the nationalists fear most, he says, is emancipation of the low-caste tribal peoples, especially the so-called “untouchable,” or Dalit, class.

“I’m convinced that behind this religious extremism is a more hidden motive, which is social in nature,” Cheenath said. “The true problem isn’t conversion, but the work of promotion that Christians in Orissa have carried out for the last 140 years in favor of the tribal peoples and the Dalits. Before, they were like slaves. Now at least some of them study in our schools, organize activities in their villages, and defend their own rights. Those who want to maintain intact the old caste system, even amid today’s ‘boom,’ are afraid that the lower castes will gain too much power.”

“Orissa today is a laboratory,” Cheenath said. “What’s at stake is the future of millions of Dalits and tribal members who live throughout the country.”

For those who read Italian, the Mondo e Missione piece about Orissa can be found here:Orissa, i perseguitati di serie B

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tSome background on Catholicism in India.

Though Catholics represent only 1.6 percent of the population, India is so big that this works out to a sizeable Catholic community of 17.6 million. The Church is divided into three rites: Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, and the Latin rite. The Syro-Malabar rite has an estimated four million adherents, the Syro-Malankara about 500,000, and the rest belong to the Latin Rite.

In many ways, Indian Catholicism is thriving. The Church is growing at a rate ahead of overall population growth, and by 2050 there could be almost 30 million Catholics, which would place India among the twenty largest Catholic nations on earth, roughly on a par with Germany in terms of its Catholic population. Outside its traditional base in the south, Catholicism is also expanding in the northeast. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the eastern border with China, where Catholicism arrived barely 25 years ago, there are today 180,000 Catholics out of a total population of 800,000.

A noteworthy point about Catholic demography in India is the disproportionate share of Dalits, or untouchables. Estimates are that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of Indian Catholics are Dalits, who often see Christianity as a means of protesting the caste system and of affiliating with a social network to buffer its effects.

Catholicism enjoys wide respect across India for its network of schools, hospitals and social service centers. When Mother Teresa died in 1997, the Indian government afforded her a state funeral, only the second private citizen after Mahatmas Gandhi to receive the honor. Her casket was born by the same military carriage which carried Gandhi’s remains in 1948.

Yet the Catholic community in India also faces steep challenges, among them the rise of aggressive Hindu nationalism. Radical Hindu movements often claim that Christians engage in duplicitous missionary practices in an effort to “Christianize” India. Though by most accounts the Hindu nationalists represent a tiny fraction of the population, they have the capacity to create tremendous grief.

Organized radical groups today sometimes move into Christian villages, preaching a gospel of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, and urge people to take part in “reconversion” ceremonies. These groups also routinely stage counter-festivals during Christmas celebrations. Fear of a Christian takeover is pervasive; in 2001, when Italian-born Sonia Gandhi ran in national elections, one national newspaper carried the headline, “Sonia – Vulnerable to Vatican blackmail!”

Sometimes, as in the recent case of Orissa, these tensions turn violent. In 2006, for example, Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore and two priests were attacked by a mob in Jalahally, 10 miles south of Bangalore. The three clerics had come to inspect the same after St. Thomas Church and St. Claret School in Jalhally had been sacked by Hindu nationalists. Members of Catholic religious orders are also exposed. In April 1995, nationalists cracked the skulls of two nuns in a convent on the outskirts of New Delhi; another mob broke into a residence of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Angels and beat the five sisters, along with their maid, using iron rods.

As the Catholic population continues to swell in India, and as India emerges as global superpower, these challenges are likely to occupy a growing share of time and attention in Rome and around the Catholic world.

In particular, American Catholic leaders may increasingly find themselves pressed to persuade the United States government to take a more activist role in defending religious freedom in India, just as they have in recent years in China. If so, Catholic leaders may be on a collision course with emerging U.S. political and economic calculations.

One of President George W. Bush’s few recent foreign policy breakthroughs has been reversing decades of tension between the United States and India, forging a new partnership that saw India contribute troops to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. In many ways, India is a logical partner for the U.S.-led global war on terror, given that it has its own long experience of struggling with Islamic fundamentalism.

India is also one of the most explosive economies in the world; as of 2007, it was experiencing a 9 percent annual rate of economic growth. It’s a world leader in information and communications technology, light engineering, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. India is also the Microsoft of outsourcing, controlling 85 percent of market share in an industry growing 40 percent every year.

For these reasons, future American administrations may be reluctant to criticize a nation perceived as a key strategic ally and trading partner. India, in other words, could be the next China in terms of tensions between human rights on the one hand, and economic and foreign policy interests on the other.

Given the nature of inter-religious dynamics in India, the Catholic church appears likely to be caught squarely in the middle of that tension.

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