17 March, JABALPUR, India (UCAN) — Church people in Madhya Pradesh say Christians have gained increased acceptance and support in the central Indian state following increased violence against them.
A group of secular opposition political parties established Rashtriya Secular Munch (national secular forum) to oppose what they term the sectarian politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party). They also demanded protection for the state’s Christians.
Forum members held a public meeting Feb. 28 in Bhopal, the state capital, 750 kilometers south of New Delhi, to speak against the "agenda" of the BJP, which they say aims to gain political power through communal polarization.
Archbishop Pascal Topno of Bhopal, speaking with UCA News after the forum, said the spontaneous and unsolicited response of secular political parties to defend the Church amid violent attacks "is a definite sign" of the Church’s growing acceptance.
Since the Hindu-nationalist BJP came to power two years ago, violent attacks on Christians have increased.
According to Indira Iyengar, a member of the State Minority Commission, more than 16 incidents against Christians were reported in the first two months of 2006 alone. The sudden spurt in incidents, she told UCA News, was caused by the government’s relaxed attitude toward attackers, whom she described as "Hindu fundamentalists."
She accused the government of not heeding recommendations her commission made to stop the violence. The government’s attitude, she added, brought the opposition Congress party and other secular parties together to defend the Church.
Mahendra Bajpai, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), told UCA News the BJP was trying to obliterate the good works of Christian missioners in the most backward areas of the state for fear it would lose its political influence in those regions.
In his view, tribal and other poor people in the state’s backward regions would not have an education were it not for the Church. He praised the Christian community for its work in rural areas promoting health as well as education among the poorest of the poor.
At the forum meeting, Shailendra Pradha, a former state legislator who quit the BJP, accused the party of adopting "cruel tactics against the minorities."
Commenting on the display of solidarity, Archbishop Topno told UCA News this is the "first time the Church got such overwhelming support."
The backing is all the more significant because the political parties took the initiative without a request from the Church, he added, but he also emphasized the need to develop political leadership among lay Catholics.
The local Church needs more lay participation in politics, he said, because it is "difficult" for the Church to survive without proper political backing.
Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Madhya Pradesh, described the political support the Church has received as "the vindication" of its stand for the poor.
He said it showed the majority of people do not believe the BJP’s claim that the Church’s work among the poor is a facade for conversion. People understand it as the Church’s genuine concern for the welfare of the poor, he said.
By coming out openly in favor of the Church, the secular parties have discredited the BJP’s allegations, the Church spokesman maintained, calling such support "a step in the right direction."