As I write this piece, another Church in Hyderabad has been vandalised by a local mob. A few days ago, two statues of the Virgin Mary and a Cross were desecrated and another prominent and historical Cross demolished by the BMC. I would proudly tell my fellow priests here in Rome, that India has always been a cradle of world religions, where every faith can co-exist in peace and fraternity. I’m not sure about this anymore.
This is not a general condemnation of the people of India. Growing up in Mumbai, I have personally experienced the love of people belonging to every faith and denomination. We have laughed together, grown up together, eaten together and celebrated religious festivals together. The problem is that the Government has become incapable of protecting the religious freedoms of its citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. The ineptness of the government has infected the police and civil services of our society as well.
My aim is not to anaylse this situation. Let’s get straight to the point: WHAT DO WE DO?
I remember a young person asking me a couple of years ago when a similar incident had taken place, “Why are we always asked to show restraint after every incident like this? Why don’t we go after these guys with bats and hockey sticks and show them that we are not going to take this lying down? Isn’t this why our holy images and places of worship are always attacked? Because they know we won’t fight back?”
I understand this sentiment completely. And sure, we must fight back. But not through violence. I think it’s pretty clear to all of us that violence hasn’t solved one problem in the history of mankind. God does not approve of violence. And for good reason.
From the beginning of Christianity, Christians have faced violence and persecution. These incidents in Mumbai pale in comparison to what Christians have had to face through history. Mind you, there is violence on a much greater scale going on against Christians in other parts of the world even as you are reading this. A number of reports have said that Christianity continues to be the most persecuted religion in the world.
Let’s come back to Mumbai. What can I – a Christian – do in the face of these incidents?
- PRAY! – I can literally feel some people rolling their eyes here. Isn’t this all that we do? Isn’t it time we went beyond prayer? Sure, we must. But we cannot go ahead until each and everyone of our parish communities is praying about this. We are all very concerned and agitated about this issue but it is scandalizing how few of us are actually asking God for His intervention. Let’s not forget that throughout the story of salvation, the People of God have faced violent persecution and it is always God Himself who has come to redeem us. He has fought on our behalf. So if you think you can solve this by yourself, you are kidding yourself. Get down on your knees and pray!
- It is important to take legal stock of all such crosses in our parish community and ensure we have documents in place. Can we put up a little sign next to the Crosses (in Marathi and English) which proclaims the legal status and historicity of the Cross clearly? Finally, I do know from experience that most people in the parish are ignorant about the history and status of the Crosses and Chapels that fall in their parish territory. Can we inform people through different means of communication that the parish has at its disposal?
- Start an Online Catholic project: This is an extension to the previous point. Can we have an online documentation of all our city crosses in one place so that they are easily accessible? We could start a photo project where we take photos of crosses across the city, find their history from the locals, upload and share them. What we would be doing here is preserving our histories, and restoring Catholic pride. We could also add a follow-up of the incidents that take place and what the government is doing about it. If we do not learn, these incidents will continue to happen.
- I personally feel that if we do find that some crosses are not really historically significant, or do not have legal status or have been built recently, we ourselves must take the initiative to take them down and shift them to a better location. As many people have pointed out, our faith doesn’t depend on a Cross constructed in a public place. Let us not allow the Holy Cross to be desecrated by public authorities.
- When catholic groups involved in civic issues call for a protest march, a silent protest, or a signature campaign, make sure you get out there and support them. Lend your voice. But remember, it’s not about playing politics. It’s about holding your elected representatives accountable to do their job. IMPORTANT: Do not let these incidents fade from public memory. If our elected representatives cannot protect our religious freedom, let us hold them accountable at the next elections.
- Garner support from your friends and well-wishers from other religions to stand with you. No one likes such incidents and no one supports them, be it Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain. This is not merely a Christian struggle. It is a struggle to protect religious freedom.
- Make this a topic of your public conversations. Send messages (after verifying them, of course), tweet about it, Facebook it, Snapchat about it. Talk about it at your place of work, send letters to your local newspapers, write about it.
Rally the Youth
Jane Borges from Mumbai has this to say about the issue:
“As someone who engages with the youth at both the college and parish levels, what I find most lacking is initiative among young Catholics. While the elderly make an effort to rise up to occasions, like when the cross in Bandra was brought down, the youth, mostly appear to sit on the fence. When it comes to religion, they hesitate in taking a tough stand, because they fear they will come across as hardliners. But, I don’t think that’s true. Considering the reach of social media, and the amount of time the youth spend there, the web tool can be used positively and systematically to rally youth from other religious communities as well, to support a cause when fairly justified. Unless we take pride in our faith, nobody else will feel the need to reach out.
But let’s be careful. Do not blindly follow a pack. Everyone comes with their own hidden agendas. So, when an issue related to your community is being talked about, take some interest and dig deeper. Read up about it in the newspapers, or speak to priests, your parents and people within the community, who are aware of what’s happening around you. Gather the sights and sounds, and then act accordingly. Don’t be provoked unnecessarily.”