NEW DELHI — A letter from the Archbishop of New Delhi asking priests to “pray” for India in the midst of what he called threats to the country’s democracy in a “turbulent political atmosphere” has raised the ire of Hindu nationalist politicians and even prompted one politician to call for India to sever ties with the Vatican.
On Tuesday, a May 8 letter from Archbishop Anil Joseph Couto, the head of the Catholic Church in India’s capital, to local churches surfaced suggesting priests start a prayer campaign this month before the national elections due in May next year.
“We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution and the secular fabric of our nation,” Couto wrote in the letter. Suggested language of a prayer was also added that included the lines, “This is our cry, Heavenly Father, in these troubled times as we see the clouds eclipsing the light of truth, justice and freedom.”
The letter provoked immediate outrage from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the governing party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has often been accused of attempting to split the country along religious lines to appeal to its Hindu majority base. Christians make up less than 2 percent of mostly Hindu India, while Muslims are 14 percent of the population.
“No one should say such things,” party president Amit Shah chided.
Subramanian Swamy, a rabble-rousing member of India’s upper house of Parliament, tweeted late Tuesday that India should even consider cutting ties with the Vatican.
“The PM must direct MEA [India’s foreign ministry] to scrap the diplomatic relations with Vatican and seal the its [sic] Embassy in Chanakyapuri because the Archbishop is a formal nominee of the Vatican,” Swamy wrote.
India has seen an increase in religious tension and hate-related violence in recent years, including an increase of lynchings of Muslims and lower-caste victims by Hindu mobs on suspicion of possessing or slaughtering cows, which are sacred to the Hindu faith. During recent state elections in the southern state of Karnataka, both the BJP and loyalists of the main opposition Indian National Congress party were accused of spreading false and divisive content on social media.
A spokesman for Couto did not immediately return calls for comment. However, Couto defended his comments to the Indian TV channel News18.
“Prayer for country is always there and it is a very private matter. We have only asked our churches to spend one day a week to pray and it’s a private matter and no one can interfere with it. We are concerned with atmosphere, issues plaguing the country. It’s only a request from various people to pray for the country,” Couto said.
He also said that the letter was not referring to the Modi government and he was merely “raising concerns” as a citizen of India over religious tension.
In its 2018 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said religious freedom was continuing on a “downward trend” in India, citing attempts by Hindu nationalist groups to “Saffronize” India through violence, intimidation and harassment of religious and other minorities, including “cow protection” lynch mobs that killed 10.
“At the federal level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made statements decrying mob violence, but members of his own political party have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and many have used discriminatory language about religious minorities,” the report noted.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters Tuesday that he had not seen the letter but “I want to say India is one of those countries where minorities are safe and no one is allowed to discriminate on the basis of caste and religion.”