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HomeArticleCatholic Church Leaders in Kerala Speak Out Against Attacks on Christians as National Election Looms

Catholic Church Leaders in Kerala Speak Out Against Attacks on Christians as National Election Looms

Catholic Church Leaders in Kerala Speak Out Against Attacks on Christians as National Election Looms

A church Mission Congress procession in Thrissur on April 10, 2024. (photo: Courtesy photo / Anto Akarra )

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is trying to secure Christian support, despite his party’s record of failing to protect Christians from violence in other Indian states.

KOCHI, India — Despite efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to woo the crucial Christian voters in the southern Christian heartland of Kerala ahead of this year’s elections to the Indian Parliament, a flurry statements and reactions indicate Church leaders remain wary of the BJP.

“Christians in Manipur and elsewhere in North India are facing brutal assault from the powers of darkness. There has been no effective intervention on the part of the authorities. It is high time we adopted a stand against the forces of evil,” said Archbishop Thomas Netto of Trivandrum in his Good Friday homily to thousands gathered at Payalam Cathedral. Trivandrum is Kerala’s capital city.

“We should make use of the opportunity [of the election] to express our opinion,” said Archbishop Netto, who heads the Latin-rite Church in Kerala. There are nearly 7 million Christians in Kerala, constituting 18% of the state’s total population.

The Pioneer daily newspaper noted that while candidates for the rival Congress Party and the Communist Party of India participated in the Way of the Cross and listened to the sermon, along with supporters of both parties, the local BJP candidate and other BJP members were notable by their absence.

Major Archbishop Mar Raphael Thattil, the head of India’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, also called attention to the plight of Christians in his Holy Thursday homily, saying “not only in Manipur, but in many parts of the country Christians were suffering and many believers were not even able to celebrate Easter,” the Deccan Herald reported.

 

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil at the Manipur state stall flanked by two Manipuri nuns at the Fiath Mission Congress that began in Thrissur on April 10 2024
Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil at the Manipur state stall flanked by two Manipuri nuns at the Fiath Mission Congress that began in Thrissur on April 10, 2024.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

 

Archbishop Thattil’s reference was to the BJP-ruled state of Manipur in northern India, which has witnessed widespread and continuing violence against Christians since last May. The government there initially canceled this year’s Easter holiday in the state, where Christians account for nearly half of the total population, but in the face of public protests that decision was reversed.

Earlier on March 24, the Syro-Malabar archbishop called for voters to take this context into account when they cast their ballots this year, as The News Minute reported:

“The reports of these attacks are deeply distressing, especially when we have a robust constitution in place to protect our rights. During our meeting with the Prime Minister, the government assured us of taking action, it is imperative for people to vote for those who safeguard the rights of minorities and uphold the constitution of the country.”

Such remarks by prominent Church leaders countered some of the consternation generated by an interview with Cardinal George Alencherry that was published on Easter Sunday in 2023 by The New Indian Express. The cardinal, who was then serving as major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, disconcerted many local Christians due to his insistence that  “Christians are not insecure under Modi.”

Cardinal Alencherry resigned as major archbishop in November.

 

Lengthy Voting Process

More than 980 million Indians are eligible to cast their votes in India’s 18th national elections, staggered into seven phases beginning on April 19 and ending on June 1, with the votes to be counted on June 4.

Kerala, where it is believed St. Thomas the Apostle sowed the seeds of Christian faith in AD 52, remains the only state where the Hindu nationalist BJP, which has ruled the country for two consecutive terms of five years each starting in 2014, has not won a single seat among its 20 members of the 542-member National Parliament.

“Prime Minister Modi is making repeated visits to Kerala as the Hindu nationalists are aware that they cannot achieve a political breakthrough in Kerala without the Christian support,” Ignatius Gonsalves, president of the Indian Catholic Press Association, told the Register April 9.

The majority of Hindus, who account for more than half of Kerala’s 35 million population, are allied with the state’s other two political forces of the ruling Communists and the opposition Congress Party. Meanwhile Muslims, who account for 26% of the population, would not ally with the BJP, the senior journalist, who is based in Kochi, one of Kerala’s largest cities, pointed out.

In the run-up to the elections, Modi has made a half a dozen trips to Kerala in three months and held another political rally on March 15 at the Christian majority township of Pathanamthitta. There, he was seeking votes for local BJP candidate Anil Antony, the son of AK Antony, a former chief minister of Kerala who served as India’s defense minister under the Congress Party government that preceded the BJP’s rise to power in 2014.

 

Backdrop of Modi rally in Thrissur, portraits of nuns in the middle strip above flowers.
Backdrop of Modi rally in Thrissur, portraits of nuns in the middle strip above flowers.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

 

“Prime Minister Modi has come and gone. But that is not going to make any impact on our people. That’s what I have heard from the people,” Bishop Samuel Irenios, the head of the Pathanamathitta Diocese of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, told the Register.

“The people are well aware of what is happening in the country,” said Bishop Irenios.

Even Antony, the veteran Congress party leader and Anil’s father, made national headlines when he told the media on April 9 that “My son should be defeated.”

Davis Kannanaikkal, a Catholic and editor of The Express afternoon daily based in Thrissur told the Register that “BJP’s all-out effort to woo the Christian community is not making any headway at all.”

“The Manipur violence against Christians and arrests of Kerala nuns and priests on false charges in north India leave little choice for the Christians here to ally with the BJP,” Kannanaikkal said.

The prime minister held a political rally on Jan. 3 in Thrissur and within a fortnight, Kannanaikkal pointed out, “he was here again for the marriage of the daughter Suresh Gopi” — a popular film actor and BJP candidate for Thrissur Parliament seat, which he lost in 2019.

“But the prime minister has not found time to visit simmering Manipur even once in 11 months,” said Kannanaikkal.

 

Electioneering Embarrassment?

In an embarrassment to another Kerala BJP candidate, Suresh Gopi, the gold crown his wife and daughter put on the statue of Mary at the Lourdes Cathedral in Thrissur for blessings in the presence of local media ahead of his daughter’s Jan. 17 marriage, fell from the statue. The incident provoked ridicule from the BJP’s social media critics.

 

 

Reports subsequently surfaced that the gold crown was found to be merely gold-plated when the Cathedral tested the offering for its purity, in the wake  of widespread local suspicions that the action was a cheap election ploy intended to attract Christian voters.

However, Father Davis Pulikkottil, the cathedral’s vicar, told the Register April 9 that “I cannot comment on the test results now.”

NP Jackson, a Catholic teacher in Thrissur, said that despite the regular attacks on Christians in states ruled by the BJP, Hindu nationalists “showed no sense of shame” when portraits of two local saints, Sts. Alphonsa and Euphrasia, were displayed on the backdrop of Modi’s women’s rally in Thrissur in Jan. 3.

Jackson said, “BJP is shamelessly trying such gimmicks.”

 

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