It has been routine for some of the church leaders to vacate the pulpit and jump into the poll arena to influence the faithful, rather adversely.
Anil Joseph Thomas Couto (63), Metropolitan archbishop of Delhi, one among 47 others of his rank, and secretary general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), has not really covered himself with glory and grace in the service of God, to say the least. In an oblique reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 2019 election, he writes, “We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation…”
The Catholic Church is made up of dioceses, or geographical areas, each of which is headed by a bishop, who is the leader of that local church. The bishops of the more important cities, or of historically important places, are given the title of archbishop, to show a level of seniority or honour. These ‘apostles’ in white robes are supposed to be men of God, preaching the message of love, not spewing venom and spreading hatred.
Incidentally, ahead of Gujarat Assembly elections in 2018, the Archdiocese of Gandhinagar, Archbishop Thomas Macwan, had written a letter against “nationalist forces” stating that minorities were feeling insecure and churches were under attack “daily”. The letter called for the election of “humane leaders” in Gujarat elections, who could “make a difference”, citing examples from the history of defeat of Communists and dictators.
His letter also referred to the Battle of Lepanto (7 October, 1571), a naval battle between the Christians and Ottomans fought in the strait between the gulfs of Pátrai and Corinth, off Lepanto (Návpaktos), Greece. The fleet of the Holy League (the Pope’s naval crusade) opposed the Ottoman Empire’s fleet under Uluç Ali Pasha. The battle marked the first significant victory for a Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet. Two years later, Venice made peace in 1573, surrendering Cyprus to the Turks.
Now, what has this to do with the Gujarat elections? After this, he cheekily clarified that there was no “malicious” intent behind the letter. The Gujarat election results must have come as a rude shock to him. And by the way, no church was attacked in Gujarat after the elections.
During the run up to the Delhi Assembly elections in 2014, a section of the same powerful Delhi church raised a hue and cry about attacks on churches in Delhi. After investigations, all five attacks were found to have been carried out by criminals, insiders and petty burglars — none belonging to any Hindu organisations or otherwise ‘communally’ motivated.
Yet, the tirade against Hindus (read BJP) went on unabated. The Delhi Police investigated all attacks, arrested all culprits and found no evidence of involvement of any ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ or organisations even remotely connected with Hindu organisations. The police reported more than a lakh and a half (1,55,654) incidents of crime in Delhi in 2014, including incidents of theft and vandalism in 206 temples, 14 mosques, 30 gurudwaras and three of the over 200 churches in the Capital.
Finally, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won the elections, there were jubilant celebrations in the same church presided over by the very same archbishop, who has now sounded an alarm over a threat to secularism.
The archbishop’s ranting must be seen in the light of what the Congress party thinks, at least as reflected in its official mouth piece, the National Herald.
Archbishop Couto’s concerns are not only not well-founded, his letter is also no isolated instance of fears being uttered about this country “witnessing a threat” to its “secular fabric.” Hundreds of Opposition politicians, commentators, civil rights activists and common citizens say this every day.
Two political parties just came together in Karnataka, whose chief minister-designate said his party “was celebrating the formation of a secular government, rather than a communal one, which rules the nation by dividing the people on the basis of caste and religion”
Does Archbishop Couto still stand by his clarification that no ulterior political motive should be attributed to his letter?
Elaborating on the archbishop’s letter, The Vatican News says, “The five-year term of the federal government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ends in May 2019. Christian leaders have accused the government led by PM Modi of tacitly supporting Hindu groups working to establish a Hindu Nation ignoring the interests of religious and ethnic minorities”.
The article further claims that, according to the Christian groups, attacks on Christians rose after Modi came to power and have spiralled in recent years. The write-up attributes all these conclusions to the letter penned by the archbishop, who wrote: “We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere, which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution and the secular fabric of our nation.”
It has been routine for some of the church leaders to vacate the pulpit and enter the poll arena to influence the faithful. They did it in a letter to voters in general and Catholics in particular during the 2015 general election in England and Wales.
They are slow to notice the muck spots in the white robes of paedophiles, sex perverts, money launderers and many other such vices among them but quick to see the tear in the ‘secular fabric’ of the nation. It is nobody’s argument that the leaders of the church as citizens and voters should be unconcerned of the political process. But wearing one’s hatred for the BJP and Modi on the sleeves, asking to vote for the “cross” and not the “trishul” is not normal political activity.
During the Nagaland Assembly elections, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council had also urged the Christian voters to defeat the BJP. The same church had earlier called for a ban on Yoga saying it is a Hindu practice unworthy of a Christian to explore. During the Goa Assembly elections, a Catholic magazine, blessed and funded by the local church, had asked the electorate to not vote for the BJP because the Christian community was facing a ‘constitutional holocaust’.
No higher authority in the church condemned this write up or disowned it.
A large section of the Indian church is keen to foster good relations with the present dispensation and pave the way for the proposed visit of Pope to India. They must clarify if they agree with the views of their brother bishops. By dabbling in sectarian politics, the church is playing with fire. It is a double-edged sword. And those who live by the sword die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).
The author is a security and strategic affairs commentator, and former editor of ‘Organiser’.