Amid the controversy over the Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto’s letter on the “turbulent political atmosphere”, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), said on Wednesday that there is “growing anxiety” among minority communities “because the government is not acting enough” to protect them.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai who recently took over as the president of the CBCI, the apex decision-making body of the Indian Catholic Church, also said that there have been “more attempts” to polarise society in the last four years.
However, he added that the timing of Couto’s letter was wrong and it should not be taken as the “official voice of the Church in India”.
“Fear would be an exaggerated word. I would say there is anxiety, a growing anxiety among the minorities that things would get worse. It will be exaggerated to say the Church is being attacked everywhere in the country. It is not. But there is an anxiety because the government is not acting enough (in protecting minorities) and not conveying the right message. My complaint with the government is that they are not giving the message that it (attacks on minorities) is not acceptable,” he said.
Stating that there have been “more attempts” to polarise society, Gracias, who paid a courtesy call on Home Minister Rajnath Singh during his visit to the national capital on Wednesday, said: “I must say, yes. Honestly, yes. I do feel that there is greater polarisation than before. People are being forced to feel that there is a threat to a particular community. That’s not the best for the country — we should work for harmony, integration and dialogue.”
He said he had discussed this with senior BJP leaders also. “I have friends in the BJP, I was close to the earlier BJP government of ( A B) Vajpayee. I would go for tea with (L K) Advani, I personally know Arun Jaitley and his family, and also Rajnath Singh. I told them about it. I am aware of their political compulsions. I even told them this may not be the best country for your party.”
Trying to play down Couto’s letter, he said: “I have not seen the letter. But I did ask him about it and he said it was just a prayer. With the ‘new government’, what he meant was there will be a new government after the election — it could be the same party or different party.” In his letter, Couto had said that as the country “looks forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government”, the community should begin a prayer campaign from May 13.
“The Church is not made up of a bishop or any bishop, the CBCI is the official body to make a statement. Being the president, I would issue a statement, and I would certainly ask for prayers for a good election, good government. We should not give too much importance to a letter written by the Archbishop. The Church is apolitical. In the present situation, the Church is not pro-Modi or anti-Modi, pro-Congress or anti-Congress. The Church is for good governance, a government that cares for the poor, for the downtrodden,” he said, adding that the CBCI would issue a statement ahead of the 2019 elections, asking people to vote prudently for a government that works for the poor, Dalits, women and human rights.
Admitting that the timing of Couto’s letter was wrong, Gracias said: “One has to be conscious about the timing of the statement. There are 173 bishops in India and they are autonomous for their region. We try to see that everyone speaks in one voice and the timing is correct. Many a time, I had to drop the idea of making a statement because the timing was wrong. The archbishop said he has written the letter for prayer because it’s May, which is considered as Mother Mary’s month… I would prefer all statements of a political nature to be made by the CBCI and discourage bishops from doing it because it could be misunderstood. It’s too early to speak of the elections anyway.”
The Cardinal said that the Church, worldwide, has started getting involved in issues like human rights, social justice, poverty alleviation and climate change. “These issues are quite border-line and political. The governments are like… when the church does things in its favour, please come and get involved… when it is not in their favour, please stay out of it. We have to independently assess how much we can go in there.”
The Cardinal also denied reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had rejected a request on Pope Francis’s visit to India. “Prime Minister Modi never said no to his visit. What he said was there is a long queue of visits of heads of states. I told him it will be good for our country too. Wherever he has gone, he has contributed to the ethos of that country. PM Modi was in favour of it,” he said.
An earlier version of the article spelt the Cardinal’s name incorrectly. The error is regretted.