Monday, May 12, 2008

Religious Freedom: is India going the China way?

John Allen asks that question on his blog on Friday. His post is based on a longer story about the anti-Christian persecution in the eastern Indian state of Orissa (the same state where the Australian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive with his two young children) that appeared in the Italian missionary magazine Mondo e Missione [The article is worth reading and I provide a translation in a separate post]. That piece is based on interviews with various Christian leaders in the affected areas, including the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar. Allen's point is: given the rising economic status of India, will human rights abuses against minorities be pragmatically ignored by the West (particularly American administrations), the way they have been in China? In a comment at his blog, I suggested that Indian society has structural safeguards (democratic government, somewhat independent institutions, a free press, a growing sense of national identity that is transforming local/regional identities) that China does not.

This is not to suggest that I am sanguine about the status of Christians in India. The BJP/RSS/Sangh Parivar's ideological power is not to be underestimated, and the 2009 General Elections will be crucial in so many ways. The 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections have already demonstrated that the brutalization of a minority (in this case Muslims. See this excellent analysis by a family friend in the Business Standard from last December) is simply not an issue when it comes to electoral politics, when the State delivers on many "bread & butter" fronts, as Narendra Modi's BJP government has clearly done. Human rights discourse, particularly when it comes to the protection of religious minorities, tends to be the domain of the Westernized, liberal, English-speaking, educated classes. Again, the disjunct between the perspectives of this class -- as represented by the 24/7 national English TV media -- and the vast mass of voters was clearly on display in the Gujarat elections. If the Hindutva ideologues' portrayal of Christians only as barbarous outsiders, intent on destroying the glories of Indian (i.e. Hindu) civilization manages to capture the popular imagination in the way their portrayal of Muslims has, this will not bode well for the protection of the rights of Christians. These tensions will continue to be exacerbated by the inroads Christianity keeps making among the socially outcast, especially the Dalits.

(I need to add that any active work here that is specifically focused on evangelism is being done mainly by evangelical Christians. Catholic work tends to focus on what is called in India "social service." Developmental work. Very worthy and laudable, of course. The Catholic Church seems to be very wary of being lumped with "those Christians," and theologically, it seems that vast sections of the Church's leaders in India seem to have abandoned any substantive commitment to evangelization that also includes an increase in the numbers of people coming to Christ. Attitudes such as those expressed by the new Jesuit General are quite widespread. I was surprised to learn, from Allen's post, that the Catholic church in the remote northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh has actually seen a huge amount of growth in the past few decades. His post doesn't mention anything about the situation of evangelical Christians.)

The persecution in Orissa has been quite serious. Five months after the attacks, little seems to have been done. Thanks to Mike Aquilina, while I was in India in December, I got to talk with, and have started corresponding with a priest of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who spent days hiding in the forest over Christmas with his people, while his church was destroyed. This post at Inside Catholic by Laurance Alvarado describes the horrendous damage that was done by the vandals.

The challenge for Christians in the West will be to remain vigilant about human rights in India, and not to let pragmatic economic considerations eclipse the issue. I don't expect much on this front from the (largely Hindu) Indian diaspora in the West. As it is the Sangh Parivar finds a fertile fundraising source in wealthy overseas Indians, and Indian Christians don't have the clout (in numbers, or economic impact) to greatly effect any change in overall diaspora attitudes.

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