Indian Jesuits Reject Verbal Attack by Head of Hindu Group

Jan 13, 2003 01:00 PM EST

Roman Catholic Jesuits in India defended their order against a verbal attack from the leader of a prominent fundamentalist Hindu group as alumni of Jesuit schools world-wide prepared to meet in Calcutta.

K. S. Sudarshan, head of the pro-Hindu nationalist organisation RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Corps), last week described the Jesuits as the "Pope's soldiers" and claimed that they had taken an oath to use "violent and barbaric means to decimate all those who don't follow the Roman Catholic religion".

Sudarshan's comments, quoted in the news media, came after the president of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, accepted an invitation to inaugurate the four-day meeting of the World Jesuit Alumni Congress from 21 to 24 January.

The RSS is linked to the nation's main governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Kalam became president last year with the support of all of the country's major political parities - including the BJP. As a student, Kalam had attended a Jesuit college in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

A large majority of the graduates of India's 120 Jesuit schools and 20 colleges are Hindu.

The RSS leader reportedly described the president's participation in the Jesuit congress as "unfortunate". An RSS spokesperson later insisted the RSS was not questioning the president's decision to attend the meeting, but still described the Jesuits as a "violent Christian denomination".

The RSS remarks touched off a controversy in the local media.

"Such comments show a 15th-century mindset. In the 21st century, it is irrelevant," said retired Gen. Shankar Roy Chowdhury, a member of the Indian Parliament.

Roman Catholics number about 60 million in India and comprise 6 per cent of the population.

India is home to the world's biggest Jesuit community, with 3900 members, said the Rev. Lisbert D'Souza, president of Jesuit Conference of India. World-wide, Jesuits number 22 000, he said.

Last week D'Souza issued a statement denying the existence of a "Jesuit oath" as alleged by the RSS. He called the allegation a "lie" repeated by certain groups, and a "total contradiction to what our Christian faith stands for".

He told ENI: "This non-existent oath taken from an anti-Catholic Web site is being used by the RSS to discredit us. This [controversy] is being used to dissuade the [Indian] president from attending the World Congress."

Coinciding with the international Jesuit alumni congress will be a week-long meeting of RSS workers, also in Calcutta, which Sudarshan is scheduled to address.

By Anto Akkara