Friday, February 15, 2008

The Cross They Bear

A piece in the last Economist about the travails of Christians in India, focusing on the violence in Orissa. (I have no idea if the article is available in full online, so I'm putting the full-text below after the jump.) Money quote:
As in other religious conflicts in India, the trouble between Christians and Hindus in the tribal belt has more to do with politics than theology. In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise. But identifying religious minorities as a common enemy has proved an effective rallying cry for right-wing Hindu groups.
The common charge by Hindu-nationalist activists is that anti-Christian violence is the deplorable (and sometimes not even that) but understandable response of Hindus outraged at the denigration of their customs and religion by Christian missionaries.

The article identifies the "politics" as the politics of targeting minorities in order for electoral gain. There is also the "politics" of missionaries who challenge the caste-discrimination against tribals and Dalits in these regions and court the fury of the establishment.

The other line that jumped out at me: "In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise." I suspect that's the case of Catholics all over India. In my experience (which is limited and do remember that India is a vast and diverse country), Catholics exist as a separate ethnicity, with distinct cultural practices and customs; however the idea that mission is at the heart of Christian existence seems to be absent. The Great Commission is observed more by Protestants or independent Christians rather than Catholics, who -- leaders as well as laity -- seem to have internalized this development after the Council that dialogue has now replaced mission in response to the realities of a religiously plural society, and many argue openly that this ought to be the case.

In many Catholic circles, the word "proselytize" is distinguished from "evangelization" and has negative connotations of fraud, material or other incentives, force, or denigration. In ordinary English it continues to mean attempts to propagate one's own religion. I feel confident that the Economist article is using it with this intent. This is not to suggest that Catholics ought to imitate the negative tactics of other Christians -- evangelization, as Pope Paul VI reminded us -- relies on the power of the truth and the message of the Gospel alone. It remains essential to the Church's existence. She exists -- not just to do good, not to be a separate ethnicity or community aloof and apart from the world, not simply to help and aid in the development of society, or to reach out to the poor and the unwanted -- before all this she exists to evangelize. It is her deepest mission and identity.

India's Christians
The cross they bear

Feb 7th 2008 | BOTHALI
From The Economist print edition
Politics fuels religious violence

THE blackened shell of a burnt car lies in the yard of Radha Bai's farm in this bucolic village of whitewashed houses and unhurried bullock carts in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. On January 16th, as she prayed with a large group of Christians, a mob of Hindu extremists arrived. They chased worshippers away, set fire to a car and ten motorcycles and, says Mrs Bai, threatened to cut her "into pieces".
AP Marching as to war

In recent weeks Hindu extremists in India's "tribal belt"—where missionaries have long sought to convert traditionally animist forest-dwellers—have stepped up a vicious anti-Christian campaign. Over Christmas in neighbouring Orissa mobs set fire to 55 churches and 600 houses. Asghar Ali Engineer, of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, a Mumbai think-tank, calls it the worst anti-Christian violence independent India has seen.

Ramesh Modi, Chhattisgarh state president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, which propagates "Hindutva", or "Hinduness", says that Christians are "responsible for the violence themselves". Missionaries in the area, he says, are converting Hindus illegally. Chhattisgarh and Orissa are among several Indian states to have laws banning forced conversions.

It is true that an expansionist evangelist movement is in full swing in India's tribal belt. Its targets are tribal people, Hindus, even Christians, many of whom say they have switched churches to join independent Pentecostal groups. Officially, fewer than 3% of Indians are Christian. But Arun Pannalal, of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, reckons the true proportion may be twice that. Christian converts often claim to be Hindus to keep access to government jobs and college places "reserved" for Hinduism's lower castes. Most Indian Christians are dalits, at the bottom of the caste system, once known as "untouchables".

Mr Pannalal, whose own church belongs to the Anglican Communion, regrets the proselytising style of some pastors, and their habit of ripping into Hindu gods from the pulpit. They lay themselves open to accusations of illegal conversion. More than 230 people have been arrested on conversion charges in the state in the past two years. But Mr Pannalal says very few cases go to court "because the conversions are not forced and there is no case".

As in other religious conflicts in India, the trouble between Christians and Hindus in the tribal belt has more to do with politics than theology. In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise. But identifying religious minorities as a common enemy has proved an effective rallying cry for right-wing Hindu groups.

In December the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won elections in the western state of Gujarat, where it has had a well-documented hand in the persecution of Muslims. Christians in the tribal belt believe Hindu extremists have been emboldened by its success. Later this year, Chhattisgarh itself goes to the polls. Christians fear more violence.

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