On Sunday October 26, two countries of interest to Americans were publicly accused by Pope Benedict of persecuting Christians on a tragic scale. One of the pope’s targets is Iraq, where ancient Christian communities have been decimated in the turmoil unleashed by the US invasion, most recently in Mosul, where they are caught in a struggle been Iraqi Kurds and Arabs. The other country in the pope’s crosshairs is India. On Tuesday, the Vatican elaborated on the pope’s expression of alarm by reminding Indians that Mohandas K. Gandhi abhored religious intolerance. “During the course of (Gandhi’s) struggle for freedom, he realized that ‘an eye for a eye, and soon the whole world is blind,'” Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, said in the address, as reported by the Reuters news agency in Rome.
In India, where a national election, next year, will pit a Hindu nationalist-led party against a more secular incumbent government, led by the Congress Party, there have been a spate of assaults on Christians. Disturbing photographs and amateur videos show ransacked Christian churches in Orissa state in eastern India, where terrified Christian families have fled to shelters to avoid the cruel choice between conversion to Hinduism or death. Bibles and prayer books have been found burned among the ruins of Christian homes.
This is not the image of secular, democratic, modernizing India that its boosters want to see. But unfortunately, these are not isolated, momentary scenes. In late September, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote to President Bush, asking him to raise the issue of religious persecution with India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh. In the letter, Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights and the US commission chair, called attention to more than a year of anti-Christian violence occurring in several states, and said that the national government’s response had been “inadequate.”
Gaer wrote: “If India is to exercise global leadership as the largest and perhaps most pluralistic democracy in the world, Prime Minister Singh should demonstrate his government’s commitment to uphold the basic human rights obligations to which he has agreed, including the protection of religious minorities.”
The pope was even more blunt. He said he was calling the attention “of religious leaders and of all people of goodwill everywhere to the tragedy of certain countries of the east where Christians are victims of intolerance and cruel violence, killed, threatened and forced to abandon their homes.” He added: “At this moment I am thinking above all about Iraq and India.”
For more than two decades, minority religious groups in India have felt mounting tensions and suffered attacks, often politically motivated. Several thousand Sikhs were slaughtered in Delhi and across northern India in 1984, after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards. She had sent the army into Sikhdom’s holiest sanctuary, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in search of a rebel politician, leaving the shrine a severely damaged and desecrated place.