So said Archbishop Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkland. The president of the Latin-rite episcopal body made his comments in the wake of a visit “ad limina” by some Indian bishops.
Last week, when John Paul II received the bishops of the Indian ecclesiastical provinces of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, Patna and Ranchi, on their five-yearly visit to the Holy See, he expressed the hope that, “for the good of the nation, the development of tendencies contrary” to the strong tradition of respect for religious differences would “not be allowed.”
A debate is ongoing in India among intellectuals, the media and human rights groups, following the approval of anti-conversion laws in some states of the federation. The law, theoretically oriented to the prevention of forced conversions, requires that the authorities approve a change of creed.
Adding his voice to the debate, Archbishop Toppo said: “Some call us foreigners, but we are Indians and we exercise rights sanctioned by the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion.”
The archbishop explained that “fundamentalist Hindus have their vision of India — according to Hindutva ideology, India should have one culture, language and religion — this is why they killed Mahatma Ghandi.”
From the start of the 20th century, fundamentalists “worked systematically in the last century with propaganda of hatred for Muslims and Christians. But, behind this religious fanaticism, there are political, social and economic questions,” he said.
In India, there are 100 million Dalits and 70 million Adivasi tribals. For centuries, these groups experienced oppression and social exclusion.
“This makes them very open to the Gospel,” Archbishop Toppo said. “Certain fundamentalist groups fear that Dalits and Adivasi will become Christians, and they see this as a threat which can overturn the caste system and change the religious composition of the country, which is now about 80% Hindu, 12.5% Muslim and 2.6% Christian.
“To prevent this, fundamentalist groups want to transform India into a Hindu country and they want to present themselves to Dalits and tribals as their defenders and guarantors, after having excluded them for centuries.”
He added: “Today, thanks to evangelization, development and human promotion operated by Christians, tribals are now literate and they are aware of and claim their rights.”
Archbishop Toppo believes that this “should be of concern to the government, but very often it is not. Fanaticism has no future. It will implode because it tries to stop the progress and human development of the people.”
He continued: “Fundamentalist groups have their program, but we continue on our path along the ways of dialogue. It is important to educate our community to openness and dialogue, so that everyone can see that we are Christians and what we want.”
In a multicultural and multireligious context, “dialogue is a pastoral priority for us,” the prelate said. “So are ecumenical relations with the many non-Catholic denominations, because in every political, social or economic problem, everyone sees Christians as one body.”
Of the 30 million Christians in India, 16 million are Catholics of three rites: Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara.
“This is a challenge for us,” the archbishop said. “The three communities must bear witness of unity, through spirituality of communion, which already exists but which must be deepened and lived. Evangelization and witness walk hand in hand. The Pope reminded us of this when we met him during the ‘ad limina’ visit, an experience of communion with the universal Church which strengthens our faith.
“I am optimistic for the future of Christians in India, as was Mother Teresa, as the Holy Father is today. India is a great nation, with a traditional spirit of tolerance which most people still retain.”