Friday, December 31, 2010

Religious freedom is the path to peace in India, Card Gracias says

Card Oswald Gracias is archbishop of Mumbai and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. Here is his reflection on the topic of religious freedom in India, Asia and the world. His starting point in Benedict XVI’s message for the 2011 World Peace Day, which will be celebrated on 1 January (see World Peace Day 2011 – Religious freedom, the path to Peace, AsiaNews).

In my varied experiences all over the country, I can say that religious freedom has been taken for granted. In the past two decades, religious freedom has come under intense scrutiny and pressure from various factions in India. In these past twenty years, most unfortunately, religion has been the cause of much divisiveness in our society.  This is tragic, as religion is a powerful force for cohesiveness, tolerance and fostering peace, love, respect, and support for others. Sadly, in so many instances in history of modern India, religion has been the cause of divisiveness, intolerance, hostilities and violence.

Hence, our beloved Holy Father’s message for World Peace Day is of fundamental importance for peace in the world. Religious freedom is the basic human right and the denial of this basic human right is a gross injustice to the individual, society, state, country and the larger global community as well. Denial of religious freedom will ultimately provoke a reaction, violence and lack of peace.

As India emerges on the global stage, it is most essential that religious freedom be guaranteed to our people, even to the most marginalised citizen of our beloved motherland. No one can be denied freedom of religion. If India is to claim her moral authority in the comity of nations, religious freedom is essential.

Spiritual leaders are responsible for promoting peace, tolerance and harmony among their followers. The responsibility of spiritual leaders in guiding the people and fostering peace is of vital importance. Spiritual leaders have the responsibility of fostering a culture of tolerance, and peace, through an ardent defence of religious freedom. 

The vital importance of spiritual leaders must be underlined in promoting understanding and working towards building bridges of peace and harmony among followers of different religions. No one can claim to be a spiritual leader if he whips up a frenzy in his followers in the name of religion.

Spiritual leaders have the responsibility of imparting the tenets of their religion, teaching the core beliefs of religion to their followers. This will create a culture of tolerance and affirm India‘s spiritual heritage, which has seen much bloodshed in the recent past. 

Here [in India], we must talk about another problem, that of religious freedom laws. These acts have been introduced by politicians, and regrettably, these so-called freedom of religion bills are used to harass our people. This is only a politicisation of religion.

For many (especially right-wing groups) religious freedom is synonymous with conversion. It is most illogical, that while a person enjoys many rights and freedoms in our country, including the right to change the government (through elections), yet when it comes to making an informed and free choice of belief in a religion, we meet with stiff opposition.

Religious freedom means the freedom to search for the truth and to facilitate this search rather than putting obstacles in searching for the truth. How can any power or person decide what the truth is for me? This is ridiculous, baseless allegations, as the miniscule Christian community in India, according to the census of 2001, is 2.18% of the total population.

As a modern and free nation, India ought to uphold the right of its people to practice and importantly, change their faith, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The state cannot be biased in favour of any particular religion. The state should neither support nor show favouritism to any particular religion. The state should be secular (not anti-religious) and not discriminate on the basis of religious belief. Our beloved motherland is a secular country and freedom to practice, preach and propagate is enshrined in Article 25 of our constitution, but sadly, so often in many states, there is persecution and discrimination because of religion. Yes, I would call for a separation of church from state. In addition, by separation I mean equality in the treatment of all religions to build a culture of peace among religions.

After Vatican II, the biggest contribution of the Catholic Church around the world has been interreligious dialogue. At many levels, the Catholic Church in India has opened dialogue centres, and initiated various programmes, meetings, seminars to promote peace , understanding and mutual tolerance among religions and followers of religions.

Through this interreligious dialogue, many prejudices have given way to respect and understanding, suspicions has given way to acceptance and tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Interreligious dialogues among spiritual leaders and among community leaders, as well as at every level of society have promoted peace.

People are welcomed irrespective of their faith or caste and treated with dignity. In fact, the Catholic Church in India (also around the globe) has been a pioneer in promoting religious freedom through our non-discriminatory and compassionate works of charity, which are works of peace. In Christian educational institutions, over 85% of the beneficiaries are non-Christian brothers and sisters.

Through our health ministry, well established Christians hospitals and health centres provide services in rural areas and other remote and inaccessible places to people of every caste, faith and creed.

As part of our ministry dedicated to socio-economic development, the Church has opened stations in remote areas and has been undertaking literacy campaigns, adult and child education, relief work, social service, and health care services.

Dalits and Tribals have received the special attention of the Church through its educational, medical and welfare ministry. This oppressed section of the society has become self-reliant and enjoyed emancipation irrespective of faith and caste. Tribals and Dalits were previously condemned to remain in inhuman poverty at the bottom of the social scale because of economic, social and religious structures.

There are hostels and orphanages for boys and girls attached to educational institutions to help the children of poor parents. Great care is given to the deaf and dumb, mentally retarded, aged, destitute, lepers, and people living with HIV/AIDS. There are thousands of such centres where committed staff provides volunteer services in the field as an expression of our commitment to humanity.