The sad plight of India's flock


Last Friday, Sept. 5, was the anniversary of Mother Teresa's death. Eleven years ago, Indians lined the streets to honour her state funeral procession. This year, her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, encountered a rather different crowd on the anniversary.

Four sisters were attacked by about 20 Bajrang Dal (a Hindu nationalist youth movement) activists and forced off a train in Chhattisgarh, a province in central India. The small mob marched the sisters to the police station, chanting anti-Christian slogans, threatening to beat them up and accusing the sisters of kidnapping the children in their care.

A Hindu nationalist mob threatening violence against religious sisters who run orphanages? Sadly, that there were only threats must today be considered a blessing. In the neighbouring state of Orissa, the past fortnight has seen an outbreak of deadly anti-Christian violence -- the latest episodes in an ominous trend spanning several years.

In India as a whole, and in Orissa as well, Christians represent slightly more than 2% of the population. Two weeks ago, a Hindu nationalist leader named Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed in Orissa. Responsibility for the assassination was claimed by Maoists guerrillas. Despite that, the followers of Saraswati blamed Christians and went on a rampage.

At least a dozen people have been killed, including a young woman missionary burnt alive in an orphanage. (When the mob torched the building, she ran inside to try and rescue the children.) A priest at the same orphanage was locked in a room to suffer the same fate -- though he escaped with grave injuries. In scenes of pure barbarism, a Catholic layman was hacked to pieces, a young nun was raped. Christian schools, churches and hospitals have been sacked.

"There is a climate of intolerance against Christians that is growing in the country, and it will have serious drastic long-term effects on Indian society," said Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, accusing Hindu nationalist leaders of "poisoning minds" with anti-Christian propaganda.

On Aug. 29, India's Catholic bishops closed all the Catholic schools in the country -- many of which are sought out by India's non-Catholic elite for the quality of the education -- in a one-day protest "against the atrocities on the Christian community and other innocent people."

Yesterday was observed throughout the Indian Catholic Church as a Gandhi-esque day of prayer and fasting for "the promotion of communal harmony and peace in India." But otherwise, anti-Christian violence in the country seems to have attracted little notice.

So in terms of India's future and the future of global Christianity, it is a pressing concern that anti-Christian violence be checked. But it cannot be checked if it is not at least noticed.

Ignoring this phenomenon would be mistake, both for India and Indian Christians.

The growth of Hindu nationalism in India, both in its democratic political form and in its mobterrorist form, threatens to put the country on a path of sectarian conflict and religious violence. The more extreme Hindu nationalists want to overturn India's official secularity in favour of an explicit Hindu identity. In such an India, the public life and even presence of Muslims and Christians would be severely circumscribed.

Muslims in India, numbering some 150 million, are simply too numerous to be a plausible first target. Christians, on the other hand, are a tiny minority and, with the apparent global ignorance of their plight, can be subject to harassment and violence with relative impunity.

Yet if Hindu nationalist violence grows, it will one day turn against Muslims in large numbers -- threatening to inflame religious tensions on the subcontinent, within India and with India's Muslim neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh. A religious conflagration could be massively destabilizing for global politics.

The Christian world ought to pay attention on Christian grounds, too. No flock is too small to be expendable; and in any case, India's Christians are not a small flock. There are 18 million Catholics in India -- more than in Canada and England combined.

The Church in India is vibrant. In 2006, I was in Bombay for the installation of the new archbishop and was struck by the sheer vitality of the Indian Church. Cardinal Gracias told me then that Bombay, with "only" 500,000 Catholics, is comparable to cities such Chicago or Milan in terms of actual churchgoers, with Mass attendance above 80%. Certainly, the Church in Bombay is more vital and important to the shape of global Catholicism than the Church in Toronto or Montreal -- a sobering reality for Canadians to consider.

So in terms of India's future and the future of global Christianity, it is a pressing concern that anti-Christian violence be checked. But it cannot be checked if it is not at least noticed.


Father Raymond J. de Souza. "The sad plight of India's flock." National Post, (Canada) September 8, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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