NEW DELHI — Christians took comfort this week from some unexpected “hard talk” in support of religious freedom delivered by visiting U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama’s remarks came two days after Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s similar remarks, delivered to mark India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day celebration, at which Obama was this year’s chief guest. And to many Christians, both speeches seemed to be directly addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP party.

“Religion is a force for unity; we cannot make it a cause of conflict,” Mukherjee said in his customary address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day. Mukherjee was quoting Mahatma Gandhi, who is known as “Father of the Nation” of the country that became a republic on Jan. 26, 1950.

In an apparent endorsement of Mukherjee’s remarks, President Obama said in his concluding Jan. 27 “town hall” address in New Delhi, “We remember the wisdom of Gandhi, who said that ‘the different religions are beautiful flowers in the same garden.’ They are branches of the same majestic tree.”

“Every person has a right to practice the faith that they choose and to practice no faith at all — and to do so free of persecution, fear or discrimination,” declared Obama, even though he is not fully supporting religious freedom in the U.S., given the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act..

The U.S. president even quoted the Indian constitution on religious freedom, reminding more than 1,800 special invitees, including many youth, “Your [constitution] Article 25 says all people are equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and have the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.”

Asserting that “upholding freedom of religion is the utmost responsibility of the government,” Obama pointed out, “We see violence and terror perpetuated by those who profess to be standing up for upholding their faith but in fact [are] betraying them.”

Calling for the international community to “guard against any efforts to divide us on sectarian lines or any other thing,” Obama cautioned that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith.”

 

‘A Happy Coincidence’

“We are very happy that the U.S. president has spoken out clearly on the issue of religious freedom,” said Archbishop Albert D’Souza of Agra, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI).

“It is indeed a happy coincidence that both the U.S. and Indian presidents have made these statements when unpleasant things are happening on the religious-freedom front in the country,” Archbishop D’Souza told the Register.

“The [Indian] president, with his Republic Day message, has made it clear to the government what it should do,” said Archbishop D’Souza. “We want the prime minister to act before things get worse.”

In his Republic Day remarks, Mukherjee — whose presidential office is a largely ceremonial post under the nation’s parliamentary system of government that vests governmental power instead with the prime minister — stated, “Wisdom of India teaches us: Unity is strength; dominance is weakness. … We have always reposed our trust in faith equality, where every faith is equal before the law.”

Further, Mukherjee cautioned that “the violence of the tongue cuts and wounds people's hearts” — in what appeared to be a reference to recent Hindu nationalist propaganda that has demonized minority Christians and Muslims as “foreign” faiths, while calling for India to be a Hindu nation.

John Dayal, an outspoken Catholic activist, told the Register that President Obama’s “hard talk” was a “strong message” to Modi’s government, which, Dayal said, has been “keeping quiet on the recurring anti-Christian violence and propaganda.”

Dayal shared the view of media reports: that Obama has given a “clear message” to the Indian government that “the world is also watching what’s happening in the country.”

 

BJP Downplays Obama’s Remarks

However, BJP spokespersons and sympathizers tried to downplay Obama’s message, claiming that it was “only global and not India specific.”

And Kanwar Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary, maintained that it was “wrong” and “unnecessary” on the part of Obama “to quote the constitution to us.”

But Dayal countered that he would request “concerned Indians” to ask the Modi government to take the words of the Indian president seriously, in order to uphold religious freedom and harmony in the country amid headlines of reconversions of Christians and attacks on churches.

“The Church has raised its concerns on these issues several times since the BJP came into power [in May 2014],” Dayal said.

“The Christians of this country need assurance from the government: that we are protected and secure and safe in our motherland,” said the Catholic Church in a strong statement on Jan. 21, urging the government “to uphold the secular nature of India.”

Under the Indian constitution, secularism does not mean the exclusion of religion from public life, but “equal respect to all faiths without discrimination.”

The statement emerged from a key Jan. 20 meeting in New Delhi, attended by the top Church leadership in the country, including four cardinals, which was convened in the wake of a surge in anti-Christian violence and propaganda.

“The unfortunate incidents that happened in the past few months in various parts of our country have hurt the sentiments of the Christian community and have shaken the faith in the secular fabric of our nation,” stated the bishops' conference.

“Shocking incidents that have taken place against churches, clergy and laity in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have caused great concern for the Christian community,” the bishops' statement asserted.

With the nation ruled by the BJP, the statement pointed out, belligerent Hindu fundamentalist groups have been conducting “ghar vaspsi” (meaning “reconversion ceremonies”), while the government has been facilitating Hindu indoctrination in education and culture.

The clamor for converting India into a Hindu nation and attacks on churches and Christians in several parts of the country, the Catholic Church warned, portrayed “a negative image of India” immediately ahead of President Obama’s Jan. 25-27 visit.

 

Strategy of Polarization?

Meanwhile, addressing a Jan. 24 seminar on “religious freedom and challenges” organized by the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Cyriac Joseph, a Catholic and retired federal Supreme Court judge, noted that “the pattern of incidents after the BJP came to power has created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.”

“This could be a strategy of [Hindu] polarization for political benefits,” Joseph, who is currently a member of the autonomous National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), observed at the end of the seminar.

B. Radhakrishna Menon, a senior BJP leader in Kerala, assured the participants that fundamental religious freedom of minorities will be “protected” by the BJP government. But several speakers and participants challenged him on whether his assurance could be taken for face value in the context of recent developments in the country and the BJP government’s response.

On Jan. 20, the NHRC issued a notice to the government and requested an investigation over reported attacks on four churches in the national capital, including the mysterious torching of a big Catholic church in Delhi on Dec. 1.

In its press release, the human-rights commission stated that “these frequent attacks on the religious institutions of the minority community, if true, violate the fundamental right to freedom of religion and cause immense harm to the social fabric.”

Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.