New Delhi, India., Nov. 29 - A right-wing Hindu leader has accused Pope John Paul II and Christian missionaries of encouraging religious conversions in order to undermine India’s integrity.
K.S. Sudarshan, who heads the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella body of right-wing Hindu groups, alleged that conversion was part of a "foreign conspiracy" to make India a Christian nation.
"What sets his allegation apart from previous statements is its timing and location," Fr. Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told Christian Today.
Sudarshan made the remarks on 9 November at a gathering of Hindu nationalist groups in Ranchi, north-east India. His visit came not long after the Pope had appointed Archbishop Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi as one of 31 new cardinals. Ranchi is the capital of Jharkhand state, where the RSS and other right-wing Hindu groups are particularly active. It is also the nerve centre of the vibrant "tribal" Church in eastern India. Cardinal Toppo is the first tribal prelate from Asia to join the College of Cardinals.
Fr. Joseph refuted Sudarshan’s allegations, arguing that the Church’s actions have been "transparent". He added that "making someone cardinal had nothing to do with conversions."
The spokesman pointed out that the Hindu leader had targeted "the specific location where the Church has helped hundreds of thousands of tribal people to join the mainstream of life and assert their rights socially and politically." Fr. Joseph said there was a "clear political agenda," noting that four Indian states were going to the polls next month.
According to Sudarshan, Christian conversion had "accelerated" in India after a call by the Pope for a "harvest of souls" in Asia in the third millennium.
The reference was to Ecclesia in Asia, the concluding document of the Synod of Bishops for Asia, which the Pope released in New Delhi during his visit to India in 1999.
Sudarshan and other Hindu leaders continue to rue the partition in 1947 of British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. They warn that the current secessionist movements in north-eastern India might lead to another partition of the country, and blame the Church for the region’s troubles. Three of the seven states that make up the region have a Christian majority.
Cardinal Toppo also questioned the Hindu leader’s interest in tribal welfare, saying no one had bothered about the tribals until Christian missionaries entered the region some 150 years ago.
Referring to Hindu groups, the prelate asked: "Where were they when tribals were naked, hungry and illiterate?"
Cardinal Toppo said the Hindu social system, dominated by upper castes, had for centuries robbed tribals of their social, cultural, educational and economic rights.
"Now the Hindu leaders are speaking for them because of political interest and to keep their system alive," he added. Dismissing the conversion charges, Cardinal Toppo argued: "If educational facilities were used to convert, most Hindu leaders would have become Christians by now as they had studied in Christian schools."
Meanwhile, the Pope has spoken out against India’s caste system, and said that to be an authentic force for equality and religious harmony, the country’s Catholics must respect others’ faiths and welcome everyone without distinction for caste.
"It is not enough that the Christian community hold the principle of solidarity as a lofty ideal; rather it must be seen as the norm for human interaction," John Paul told bishops from the southern state of Tamil Nadu during their ad limina visit to Rome on 17 November.
"At all times, you must continue to make certain that special attention is given to those belonging to the lowest castes," he said, adding that they should never be segregated from other members of society.
"Any semblance of a caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is a countersign to authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality and a serious hindrance to the Church’s mission of evangelisation."
Out of a total population of more than 62 million, there are approximately 3 million Catholics in the 17 dioceses of Tamil Nadu.
Archbishop James Masilamony Arul Das of Madras and Mylapore told the Pope that, despite the state government passing a law last year requiring that baptisms and conversions be reported to the authorities, there had been a steady rise in vocations and a strong commitment to sharing the Christian faith with others. Although adults who convert are "subject to lengthy enquiries" by local authorities, he said the "anti-conversion act" has "rekindled the enthusiasm of our people for evangelisation."