“We are not afraid,” said Bishop Thomas Macwan of Ahmedabad, Gujarat state, in an interview with the Fides new service. “Our mission is to bear witness to Jesus Christ even during persecution.”
“The anti-conversion bill approved in Gujarat is unconstitutional,” he said. “We, the local Catholic Church, together with Hindu and civil organizations, will appeal to the Supreme Court. Our faith is strong. Our work is for the good of the country.”
The bishop explained how the local Catholic Church lives its mission facing the challenges posed in India’s multireligious society.
“Religious fundamentalism is growing in India,” he said. “From the large cities it is spreading out to villages. Since the country was divided in 1947, into India with a Hindu majority and Pakistan with a Muslim majority, there has always been concern for the future of religious minorities.”
He continued: “At that time, the Constitution designed a secular state. Today, instead, fundamentalism is growing for political reasons and it is used to create electoral consensus. For years, Hindus, Muslims and Christians lived here peacefully side by side. In recent decades things appear to have changed.
“For example, in Gujarat, in order to gain political advantage, certain political groups instigate Hindus and Muslims to fight each other. The Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], which governs the federation and the state of Gujarat, supports the ideology of a mono-religion state but this principle is contrary to India’s Constitution.”
According to Bishop Macwan, there are also signs that denote the growth of fundamentalism — for example, the anti-conversion movement which has already taken hold in some Indian states and the numerous attacks on Christians and Christian institutions in recent years by Hindu extremists.
“Recently, three states — Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat — approved a paper on religious conversions which in Gujarat is sold as the Religious Freedom Bill,” the bishop said. “According to the government, the paper serves to prevent cases of forced conversion, but we have asked the government to show us just one case of forced conversion.
“This is a practice which goes against Christianity and against Jesus Christ. Every citizen must be free in conscience to change his or her religion. The paper approved in Gujarat says that the pastor or the priest must go to the district magistrate to ask permission to administer baptism.”
He noted: “This is contrary to Article 25 of the Constitution which lays down the fundamental right of every person to profess and propagate freely his or her own religion. When the rules and norms of the decree are promulgated we will appeal to the Supreme Court against its unconstitutionality,” the bishop said.
Recently, Bishop Macwan had a meeting with Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, where, in December, the BJP was confirmed in government.
“The Chief Minister assured me that the Religious Freedom Bill is not against us and that I need not be concerned,” Bishop Macwan said. “This is the start of dialogue but it will not prevent us, the Catholic bishops’ conference, with other Christian churches, Hindu associations, and civil organizations, from appealing against the bill.”
The bishop went on to describe the situation in Gujarat.
“Clashes between Hindus and Muslims, which started in February 2002 after the train incident at Ghodra, left deep scars on society,” he said. “People who used to live in harmony and tolerance started sacking and killing indiscriminately. Today in Ahmedabad these two communities are fatally divided into ghettos living on opposite banks of the river.
“This division feeds barriers and prejudice: For the Hindu, every Muslim is a terrorist. Today there is a wall of hostility where only yesterday there was an atmosphere of harmony.”
And the Catholic Church in this situation? “The Church here is small but flourishing,” the bishop said. “We have the spiritual support of the universal Church. We are not afraid of threats. God sends us to bear witness to the Gospel and we will carry on our mission despite persecution.
“In Gujarat, the Christian community amounts to 0.42% of the population; Catholics are 150,000 in all. But our faith is strong and deeply rooted. We have schools, social and health care centers — non-confessional institutions known for the high quality of service and profound sense of dedication of the Catholic personnel, as all non-Christians who make use of these services confirm.”