Pope John Paul II visited New Delhi in November 1999 to promulgate a special document, Ecclesia in Asia (The Church in Asia), which lays out a vision of that continent and the Churchs future there for the new millennium.
Just a few months before, a hate campaign by Hindu Fundamentalists led to riots that caused the murder of a Catholic, Father Arul Das, and a Muslim shop-keeper, Sheikh Rahman, in the State of Orissa. Similar deaths and mob destruction of churches and mosques are, unfortunately, not uncommon in India. Even Mother Teresa of Calcutta has become a controversial figure in this environment. Fundamentalist Hindu leaders associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Reshtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu paramilitary organization, have attacked Christians they believe are thwarting their aims.
In February 1995, for example, Sister Rani Maria was stabbed more than 40 times in broad daylight and her body was mutilated by the BJP because she had helped Indians who disagreed with the Party. The previous year, three priests were savagely murdered and their church bombed in the South Chotanagpur Region. One priest was strangled and another disappeared around the same time. Early in 1995 five Franciscan nuns died near the border between Delhi and Ghaziabad.
The month after the popes visit, a group of Christian leaders met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to seek the governments support for the rights of Christians and protection from the attacks of regional governments and unchecked crowds. Sister Dolores Rego, the General Secretary of a Christian religious womens group that numbers 70,000 members, told the prime minister that they were all committed to the people of India, but feared increasingly for their basic security. She had good reason. All Christians and Muslims in India might say the same. In Madhavan Madras, forty-four nuns at the Saint Annes Convent have earned brow belts in karate to defend themselves against the burgeoning violence.
In some ways, the Hindu reaction is understandable. Though India counts almost 1 billion people within its borders, it has at least 25 million Christians; and most Indians think of Christianity as a Western threat, a holdover from British Rule. In fact, Christianity may have arrived in India earlier than it did in Britain. Legends suggest that India may have first been evangelized by the Apostle Thomas; Christianity did not come to England until centuries later. Though Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism are often thought of as peaceful faiths, in fact they can inspire quite militant movements. Mahatma Gandhi himself was assassinated by a Hindu who thought the Indian leader was deviating from Hindu orthodoxy. The Hindu caste system discriminates sharply against certain social groups. The lower castes have been particularly responsive to the Christian teaching that all people are the children of God and equal before Him.
But it is not only Hindus in India who react violently when some of their people are converted. In the mostly animist region of Assam, converts are often ostracized and forbidden to use village wells or graze their cattle on common grounds. Their own relatives may disown them. It is no surprise that matters sometimes go further. In the 1990s, three new Catholics were martyred in that region alone. Laria Simon Sutilal Bosumatary and his family were tried by their village and beaten for accepting a foreign religion. When they would not recant, their house was invaded and all Christian objects destroyed. Other beatings followed. Finally, to put an end to the situation, some village leaders took Bosumatary out of town and cut his throat. Another convert, Muaya Binod Bernard Wary had his head cut off. In the village of Kuntaibari, Maloti Mary Bosumatary was beaten to death and her body thrown into the Longa River.
Many such conflicts are inevitable all across Asia in the years to come. Christianity is an evangelizing faith and, in India, the pope laid out a bold program for the Church in the next millennium: just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent. In his view, Asia stretches from the Middle East to the Pacific and this means that: It was in fact in Asia that God revealed and fulfilled his saving purpose. The pope acknowledged that many Asians look on Christianity as a foreign Western import, but argued that like Judaism, Islam, and other world religions, Christianity took its rise within Asia itself. He called it a mystery why the Savior of the world, born in Asia, has until now remained largely unknown to the people of the continent.
Yet for all his care in outlining the need for respectful dialogue with Asian philosophies, theologies, and cultures, and in pointing out that Jesus was close to the poor, the forgotten, and the lonely, it is clear that most Asian countries regard Christianity as a danger to be curtailed, sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes for political reasons.
Noting that believers in many Asian countries were bearing a heavy cross to the point of martyrdom, John Paul went so far as to recommend new institutional arrangements to ease their plight: I encourage the various national Episcopal Conferences in Asia to establish an office to help these Churches; and I pledge the Holy Sees continued closeness to and concern for all those who are suffering persecution for their faith in Christ. I appeal to the governments and the leaders of nations to adopt and implement policies that guarantee religious freedom for all their citizens.
After outlining various strategies for respectful evangelization, however, he notes, in the end it is martyrdom which reveals to the world the very essence of the Christian message. John Paul himself seemed to recognize that the international instruments, however desirable in themselves, were not going to be of much avail against cultural and religious inertia and backlash for the foreseeable future, or even as important as the many, often unknown witnesses to the faith in Asian nations, whose numbers grow daily.
Royal, Robert. Recent Martyrs of India. Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald
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