Indian Christians Skeptical After Hindu Prime Minister’s Easter Visit to Catholic Cathedral
While not critical of Modi’s visit, they question the sincerity of his outreach to the nation’s persecuted Christian minority.
MUMBAI, India — India has witnessed contrasting scenes for its Christian minority this Easter: Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited New Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on Easter Sunday while other leaders of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party visited bishops’ houses, churches and even Christians homes on the same day to woo Christians in the heartland of southern Kerala state.
Yet at the same time as this politicized Easter week outreach to Christians was underway, three Christian churches were demolished on April 11 at the instruction of a BJP state government in northern India.
In the wake of widespread criticism of what many observers regarded as a political gimmick undertaken by Modi and other BJP leaders to woo Christian voters, nearly 10,000 protesters held a rally in Mumbai on April 12 demanding an “end to the atrocities on Christians.”
“I don’t know why so many [journalists] are calling me up for reaction. The prime minister wanted to visit the Cathedral on Easter Day and we arranged it,” Latin-rite Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi told the Register April 12, refusing further comments on Modi’s visit that has made banner headlines across the nation.
“When the prime minister expresses a desire to visit the church on Easter, we cannot say No,” Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara similarly commented. The archbishop is the head of the Delhi-based Faridabad Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar-rite Catholic Church.
“The prime minister stayed in the church as three hymns were sung and he even lighted a candle in front of the statue of Risen Christ. It was a memorable moment,” said Archbishop Bharanikulangara, who joined with two other bishops to greet Modi during his Easter Sunday visit to the New Delhi cathedral.
Outside the church, Modi greeted the faithful and even planted a tree in the cathedral compound during the nearly half-hour visit.
“We have no problem with Prime Minister Modi visiting the Cathedral for Easter to greet us. We welcome it,” Dolphy D’Souza, a Catholic who helped organize the subsequent protests in Mumbai, told the Register April 13.
But D’Souza pointed out that violence against Christians has escalated since Modi’s BJP government was first elected in 2014, and he complained that Modi has continually declined to speak out against Hindu nationalist groups that attack Christians.
“That is what concerns us,” he said. “Unless the prime minister tells his ministers and those in [BJP-ruled] states to curb violence against Christians, the situation will not improve.”
Speaking at the Mumbai event, AC Michael, coordinator of the United Christian Forum that documents atrocities against Christians, reminded the protesters that reported incidents of violence against Christians shot up from around 100 in 2014 to 600 in 2022, and more than 200 in the first 100 days of 2023.
“Unless there is strong political direction to stop the atrocities against Christians, with police and authorities remaining spectators, the situation will not improve,” Michael told the rally.
Focus on Kerala
With several of the victims of Christian violence in BJP-ruled states in central and north India being nuns, pastors and priests from the Christian heartland of Kerala, the BJP has been searching for ways to counter its negative image among the Christians in the southern state. The Hindu nationalist party currently has no seats in Kerala’s 140-member state legislature nor among its 20 seats in India’s Parliament.
Consequently, emulating Modi’s example in New Delhi, the party organized a number of Easter-related appearances at Christian venues, with BJP leaders including India’s deputy foreign minister V Muralidharan visiting bishops’ houses across the state. Another senior BJP leader even carried a cross to the Malayattoor mountain shrine on Holy Thursday, accompanied by Christian supporters, and the party claimed afterward to have visited 10,000 churches and Christian homes with “Easter greetings.”
“What happened in Kerala on Easter Day was like a stage-managed drama,” Archbishop Bharanikulangara, who is a native of the state himself, commented about the BJP’s activities, which were widely ridiculed on social media.
Adding fuel to the debate among local Catholics were the unexpected remarks of Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church, who praised Modi and stated that Christians are “not insecure in India,” in an interview published on Easter morning by The New Indian Express, a national daily newspaper.
Some clergy publicly criticized the Catholic cardinal’s surprising remarks, which alongside of Modi’s Easter Sunday actions in New Delhi generated extensive coverage on local television stations.
“Cardinal Alencherry’s claim does not reflect the disturbing reality in India,” Father Paul Thelakkat, editor of Sathyadeepam (Light of Truth), a Kerala-based Catholic magazine, told the Register, adding that his praise for the Modi regime “caused embarrassment to thousands of Christians.”
Father Anand Mathew, a senior Indian Missionary Society priest based in northern Uttar Pradesh state, told the Register the cardinal’s remarks are particularly troubling in light of the persecution of Christians in other regions of India.
“I feel pained and agitated over such a statement,” he said. “This nonsense and insensitivity to the agony of the persecuted Christians must be stopped especially in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh pastors were arrested even on Good Friday and Easter Sunday while conducting service.”
These concerns were further aggravated when three Christian churches were demolished on April 11 by the BJP government in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern state of Manipur. Father Verghese Velikkagam, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Imphal, told the Register April 19 that among the three churches demolished in Imphal was the Holy Spirit Catholic church, which was vandalized in the early morning hours of April 11.
“The bulldozers came around 2am and pulled down my church that can seat 250 people. They even did not give us time to remove the furniture,” Pastor V Nengzahau of the local Evangelical Baptist Church, told the Register April 14.
A day earlier, a delegation of Christians led by Archbishop Couto called on Indian president Draupadi Murmu in New Delhi, and presented her a memorandum.
The president expressed “concern over increased persecution of Christians in India” in a press statement she released following the April 13 meeting.
According to the statement, she “assured the delegation that she would follow up and initiate action that is within her powers to ensure that police and law enforcement agencies, complacency, unwarranted arrests, harassment of Christian families and the attacks on institutions as highlighted in the memorandum are addressed.