Jesuit activist urges bishops to act as India faces ‘critical phase’

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MUMBAI, India – A leading Catholic human rights activist in India is calling on the nation’s bishops to be “prophetic” as the country faces what is “the most critical phase of her history.”

The Feb. 12 open letter by Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash was written as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) was about to begin its 34th biennial plenary assembly Feb. 13-19 in Bengaluru. The theme of this year’s assembly is “Dialogue: The Path to Truth and Charity.”

“Dear Bishops, your meeting takes place at a time when the country is perhaps in the most critical phase of her history. It has never been so bad, on every possible front!” Prakash writes.

“Democracy, so dear to us, is being destroyed; the letter and spirit of our Constitution are systematically denigrated; above all, the pluralistic and multi-cultural fabric of our nation is being eroded,” the letter continues.

The Jesuit pointed to the millions of people protesting the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NRC), which many critics say is aimed at non-Hindus in India.

Since 2014, the country has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

Muslims, Christians, and other minorities have complained about increased discrimination and harassment since the BJP came to power.

Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using forceful and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions. They then storm into villages and lead “reconversion” ceremonies – called Ghar Wapsi, or “back to home” – in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.

Several states have passed anti-conversion laws, putting Christian ministers at risk when they baptize converts.

RELATED: Bishop in India ‘categorically denies the false allegations of forced conversion’

“Millions of our sisters and brothers in our country are crying out for a more humane, just and equitable society; they are crying because divisive, discriminatory, draconian law and policies are threatening their very citizenship; they are crying because they are being targeted because of their faith; they are crying because they are poor and vulnerable; they are crying because they are Dalits and Adivasis, women and children, unemployed youth and beleaguered farmers; they are crying because they want to be listened to, to be in dialogue with, to be accompanied!” Prakash writes.

Dalits are the Indian subcontinent’s former “Untouchables,” occupying the lowest rung in Hinduism’s caste system; Adivasis, also called Tribals, are India’s indigenous communities, often residing in forested areas, and living outside of the caste system. Both communities suffer from marginalization in India, and also make up a disproportionate total of the country’s Christian population.

Prakash urged the bishops not to hold back, warning that to be “diplomatic” and “cautious” can seem to “legitimize a ‘silence’ for apparently a ‘greater good.’”

“When we stick our necks out, we may lose everything, we may be persecuted: We will be hounded and harassed, and God knows what more. That is the core of our spirituality: The crib and the cross before the resurrection! But when we don’t stick our necks out – we will perhaps still lose everything, but also our own credibility and be a betrayal to the person and message of Jesus,” he said.

The priest said the bishops’ theme of “dialogue” was “certainly laudable,” but added that the bishops need to ask: “Dialogue with whom and for what?”

“Dialogue is always in the context of mutual respect and equity; it can never take place in a vacuum or if one party feels superior to the other or for that matter, is rigid not being able to accept another point of view,” the Jesuit writes.

“For example, if one is having a dialogue on the ‘Constitution’, are both parties willing to accept that the basic framework of the Constitution, the sanctity, the values and particularly the democratic, secular and pluralistic fabric will all remain non-negotiables?  Are both parties willing to accept that Article 19 (Freedom of Speech and Expression) and Article 25 (Freedom of Conscience and to freely preach, practice and propagate one’s religion) guaranteed in the Constitution, are fundamental to a vibrant democracy?” Prakash asks.

“Yes, ‘dialogue’ is important, but not if one is expected to toe the line or to follow unacceptable diktats. Throughout his public life, Jesus ‘took sides’ with the poor and the excluded; the vulnerable and the oppressed. He listened and responded to their cries. He has strong words for powerful vested interests who ‘lay heavy burdens’ on the common people. He refused to dialogue with the scribes and pharisees, the Pilates and Herods (for that matter even with the devil) of his time,” the priest’s letter continues.

Speaking to journalists on Feb. 12, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, the president of the CBCI and member of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinals, said dialogue is the tool which helps in building the nation.

“India, being the land of diverse cultures, requires constant aid of dialogue to be in harmony with everyone.”

The cardinal added that dialogue is the only salient aspect to demonstrate truth with charity.

“Peace and harmony doesn’t take place in the absence of dialogue. If we keep silent, how can there be any form of dialogue?” Gracias asked.


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