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Searching for Common Ground

A dialogue team in Trivandrum seeks to end religious intolerance in India.

by Sean Sprague

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“I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, to be wholly Hindu or Christian or Muslim, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Such a vision, however, is far from the reality of modern India, which suffers increasingly from “communal violence.” For decades conflicts between Hindus and Muslims plagued the subcontinent and led to its partition into India and Pakistan.

Recently, Hindu extremists have grown antagonistic toward Christians, leading to frequent flare-ups and the deaths of hundreds of poor Christian villagers and religious. Some of these attacks have occurred in northern India, especially in the states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Some of the attacks against Christians over the last few years have grabbed the headlines in newspapers around the world. Father A.T. Thomas, S.J., was decapitated in October 1998 and his body found in a jungle near Hazaribagh, Bihar. He championed the poor, supporting the rights of the Dalits, or untouchables. This murder followed another incident in Bihar in which a Catholic priest was stripped and paraded through the streets.

At the same time, four Indian Catholic nuns were raped in the state of Madhya Pradesh after a gang broke into their convent and took them one at a time to a nearby field. The sisters had been working with poor tribal communities in the neighboring state of Gujarat.

Last March, Hindu extremists and Christians clashed in Orissa and 157 of the 250 Christian homes were torched. Christian villagers interviewed by reporters blamed Hindu extremists, who were reported shouting, “Victory to Lord Ram,” as they set the fires.

The body of Brother Luke Puttaniyil, 46, a member of the Missionaries of Charity, was reported missing from Calcutta on 22 March. He was later found buried next to railroad tracks in Novada, Bihar, with bullet marks on the head and back. He was accompanying a truckload of supplies for leprosy patients from Calcutta to Patna when he was reported missing along with the truck and its driver.

Hindu extremists have also disrupted Christian gatherings, prayer meetings and processions in the city of Ahmedabad. Last November, Christian leaders there reconsidered the tradition of singing Christmas carols at the homes of parish members for fear of violence.

With CNEWA’s support, one fledgling organization in the more tolerant southern state of Kerala is trying to address this problem of religious intolerance.

With the encouragement of Cyril Mar Baselios, Syro-Malankara Catholic Archbishop of Trivandrum, Father Tomi Thadathil’s Catholic-Hindu formation and dialogue program faces up to the communal issues challenging India by educating people about the conflict, confronting these issues head-on. Father Tomi believes that understanding, open debate and dialogue among Hindus and Christians can replace the violent conflict.

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Tags: India Violence against Christians Muslim Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Hindu