The leader of the Christian community which suffered India’s worst persecution in modern times has warned that the country’s new government could spell disaster for minority groups – but not if it remains true to its promise to govern for all.
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, in Odisha (formerly called Orissa), eastern India, said he hoped new Prime Minister Narendra Modi would stick to his promise to govern for every community, irrespective of caste or creed, tackling widespread corruption and providing good governance.
But he also spoke of grave fears that Modi – whose BJP party is described as Hindu nationalist – could prove divisive, side-lining minority groups and stoking discrimination and prejudice.
The archbishop, who was interviewed by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, spoke against a backdrop of persecution in his diocese, which in successive waves in 2007 and 2008, prompted up to 50,000 to flee their homes after a spate of attacks on Christian communities.
Speaking during a visit to ACN’s UK national office, Archbishop Barwa said: “After having experienced the trauma and destructions [resulting] from a fundamentalist approach, now this party and Mr Modi have [secured] such a high majority, surely inside of us there is a kind of fear, an anxiety, a worry.”
He added: “I am worried of – let us say – a side-lining of minorities because in our past experiences we have – not only in Odisha but elsewhere – gone through suffering, struggle and persecution.”
In a wide-ranging interview, he spoke of fears of an increase in discrimination against minorities amid concerns that the new government may be ambivalent in its response to oppression against Christians and other minorities.
But the archbishop went on to highlight Modi’s election pledge to govern for all – including smaller faith groups and less influential ethnic groups.
Archbishop Barwa said: “Everybody was attracted by [Mr Modi’s] slogan that there will be developmental activity, developmental progress whether they are Dalits, or they are Tribals or they are Hindus or they are Christians.”
He said he “hoped and believed” this inclusive agenda would be “translated into reality.”
Highlighting the need to work for better inter-faith relations, he said that media work was crucial to breaking down barriers with other religious groups and described initiatives aimed at including non-Christians in major Church celebrations.
He underlined the horror of the 2007 and 2008 violence in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, where nearly 80 died in what was later called “an anti-Christian pogrom,” which included attacks on 5,000 homes spread across nearly 300 villages.
Fruits of persecution
The archbishop, a member of the Divine Word religious order, said the Odisha violence had only increased the people’s faith and went on to talk about a surge in vocations.
Describing Odisha state as “the number one” for vocations in the whole of India – apparently acknowledged as such by all Church leaders – he said he now had 53 major diocesan seminarians and that more than 500 girls and boys had attended vocations camps in the diocese earlier this year.
“The vocations we are seeing in Odisha are proof of what the early Church Father Tertullian said that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity’.”
Nearly six years after the violence in Kandhamal, Archbishop Barwa said that life was finally returning to normal.
Although stating that many had left the district to seek a better life elsewhere, he said that most of the displaced had gone back to Kandhamal to rebuilt homes and were attending churches, the vast majority of which had been repaired.
He described how over the last couple of years he had blessed 25 repaired or rebuilt churches, some in very remote regions.
“After all the horrible experiences that we underwent, thanks be to God it is much better because we Christians are proud of our religion, proud of our faith.”