“CIRCUMSTANCES are difficult for the Christians in our diocese—we often come up against restrictions in the practice of our faith,” said Bishop Stephen Antony Pillai. The 67-year-old prelate heads the Diocese of Tuticorin in southern India. He and 53 other Indian bishops recently met with Pope Francis during an ad limina visit to Rome. Bishop Pillai spoke with Aid to the Church in Need about the situation of Christians in India.
The bishop explained that the Indian government is working to transform the primarily Hindu country into a homogenous nations, with one language and one set of policies favouring Hinduism. Comprised of 29 federal states, India is, after China, the second most populous country in the world with 1.37 billion inhabitants. There are 28 million Christians in India, 20 million of whom are Catholic; the Muslim population numbers more than 200 million. In recent years, both Christians and Muslims have increasingly been targeted with violence and harassment by radical Hindu nationalists.
The situation has worsened after this year’s parliamentary elections, which the nationalist governing party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi won with a significant majority. “Our situation at the moment isn’t very encouraging. The government makes a lot of rash decisions, which makes things unpredictable. Politics only benefits the wealthy part of the population. The poor are left with nothing,” Bishop Pillai said.
Some 450,000 Catholics live in the Diocese of Tuticorin, which is equivalent to about 17 percent of the population. Besides the attacks targeting the faithful and groups of pilgrims, the bishop reported that the circumstances overall were becoming more difficult in his diocese, with authorities interfering with the administration of Catholic hospitals and schools. High unemployment affects teachers as well as farmers and factory workers, with the state government doing little to help the situation. As a result, the bishop said, the suicide rate has gone up in the region.
Nonetheless, Bishop Pillai remains hopeful, an outlook bolstered by the recent meeting of Indian bishops with Pope Francis. “We are not going to give up the fight for equality, justice and fraternity,” said the bishop, who added: “We hope that Hindus and Christians will soon become more tolerant of each other and that the readiness to use violence will decline throughout the country. I am deeply grateful to ACN and all the benefactors who help us meet our needs in all areas of pastoral care and accompany us in their prayers.”