VERONIQUE Vogel oversees the projects in India supported by our organization. She recently returned from a fact-finding mission to the country of more than 1.3 billion people, with Christians accounting for just 2.3 percent of the population. Along with Muslims, Christians are increasingly confronted with hostility by nationalist Hindus. This Lent, India is the focus of Aid to the Church in Need’s fundraising initiatives.
What is the situation of Christians in India today?
Ms. Vogel: Alarming. The number of anti-Christian attacks almost doubled in 2017, with 740 more incidents than in the previous year. Most of them occurred in northern India. It is important to know that the nationalist party, the BJP, which is currently ruling India at the federal level, is also governing 19 of the 29 federal states of India. Not only has the number of attacks grown, they are also driven by even more hate.
The consequences for Catholics are particularly severe. The attacks used to be more verbal in nature, such as those targeting the principals of Catholic schools. Now—as for example in the state of Madhya Pradesh—groups of extremists enter schools and disrupt classes. They seek to impose an extreme form of Hindu nationalism in schools. That is a new trend. At Christmas time, priests were attacked and detained by police, even though they were only visiting a village community to sing Advent carols. There is also a tendency to accuse Christians of blasphemy, just as has happened in Pakistan. Christians are portrayed as a danger to national unity. This trend has been growing since the last national elections in 2014.
How is the Church responding?
At the close of their plenary meeting at the end of February, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India stressed that Christians are to be treated as one hundred percent Indian even as they are one hundred percent Catholic. The false charge of Christians subscribing to an anti-national stance distorts Christian thought.
What message does Aid to the Church in Need have for the Christians in India?
In this atmosphere of persecution, in which Christians have to cope with harassment on a daily basis and often even have to fear for their lives, ACN is first of all helping bishops in their pastoral work so that they can in turn support their brothers and sisters in faith and encourage them to grow in their Christian faith. In concrete terms, ACN is supporting the Indian church in its work with adolescents, women, and families. We are in close contact with them, we show our solidarity with them in prayer, demonstrate our understanding of their situation—and report on it.
Because it is anything but easy to be a Christian in India today, the bishops are maintaining close interdenominational relations. We support Catholics in India so that they can continue to be an example of Christian coexistence; the Christian faith offers love and compassion to everyone.
Out of the total of 5,384 projects that were funded by ACN in 2017, the greatest share, 584 projects, involved aid for the Indian Church. Besides the fact that, after China, India is the second most populous country in the world, is there another reason for this strong focus on India?
Pope Francis rightly said that the Church of the future will be the Church in Asia. India has an important Christian community of faith. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that Indians generally have a deep and strong spirituality no matter what religion they belong to. Eighty-four per cent of the population is Hindu. Apart from the extremists—who want to foment unrest against and among people with different religious affiliations—Hindus are very hospitable and peace-loving; they consider cultural and religious diversity to be a gift from God and allow every religion to have a place in society.
Hindus have a special way of greeting each day and each moment of each day in communion with God, as one way of remaining connected to the divine; they pray; and accept their own inferiority compared to the magnificence of God. I frequently come across this humility and simultaneous joy in Hindus.
However, it is a religion that is largely lived out on an individual basis. This is why Hindus are interested in how well Christians are organized, with their bishops, priests, religious, and the faith communities that all come together to pray. They consider this dimension of community to hold new meaning for their own Hindu spirituality. This is why Hindus generally view Christianity favorably and are willing to give it a place in their society.