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A Challenge to Charity


Brian Dowling

Christians gather outside a shelter in Raikia village in the eastern Indian state of Orissa Aug. 30, 2008. Thousands of people, most of them Christians, have sought shelter in makeshift government camps in eastern India after anti-Christian violence. (CNS photo/Parth Sanyal, Reuters)

In India, violence and state laws are significant hurdles for religious freedom

Riots, attacks and other abuses are part of life in India for some Christians, whose passion for service and evangelization agitates tensions with other religious or political groups.

India has a democratically-elected government, media that are unafraid to report on abuses of power, and an independent court system. Nonetheless, according to a recent report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the country’s local governments lack the ability to uphold statutes of religious liberty and rectify cases of religious persecution.

Authorities have struggled to manage tensions that often initiate violence between religions and political groups, such as unprovoked attacks on Christians in the state of Orissa in 2008. While some members of the Knights of Columbus work amid these conditions, they also have to contend with proposed anti-conversion laws, which would — according to some interpretations — make illegal even the simplest acts of charity, such as education or health care.


The religious diversity of India’s more than 1.1 billion people is not a new development. Numerous religions, including Christian and Muslim minorities, claim early roots in the world’s second most populous nation.

Christianity was introduced to the country in the first century, according to tradition, as St. Thomas the Apostle carried the Gospel from Jerusalem, through Syria and Persia, to the region of Kerala in southwestern India. (Click here to read more about St. Thomas the Apostle.) European Catholic missionaries later reached the subcontinent in the 16th century, and Protestants entered India in the early 18th century.

Though well-established, Islam — which arrived in the 7th century — and Christianity are minor religions in India when compared to Hinduism, which is native to India. Many Hindu schools of thought were codified 200 years before the birth of Christ.

Today, Christians make up only 2.3 percent of the Indian population and are concentrated in the south and east portions of the country. Muslims account for 13.4 percent. As of 2001, more than 80 percent of residents registered as Hindu.

In view of numerous deep-rooted religious traditions, India’s federal constitution grants clear religious freedom to citizens. But powerful state and local governments often fail to protect vulnerable Christian minorities. Examples of religious persecution are numerous.

According to Eglises d’Asie, a news agency in Paris, Christians in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh were participating in a peaceful prayer meeting April 17, 2010, when 30 men suddenly attacked them and destroyed liturgical materials.

Two months earlier, Christians and extremist Hindus clashed when Christians protested an image of Jesus holding a beer and a cigarette that appeared throughout the northwestern state of Punjab. According to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, two Protestant churches were razed during the violence and another was severely damaged.

Most devastating, though, were the attacks suffered by Christian residents of Kandhamal, in the eastern state of Orissa, in August 2008. When a Hindu religious leader, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, was killed by anti-government Maoists in Kandhamal, Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the attack. During the swami’s funeral procession, groups of Hindus assaulted Christians and proceeded to raid churches, homes and an orphanage. According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), more than 100 people were killed. Rioters also destroyed thousands of homes, displacing at least 24,000 people.

Virginia Farris, policy advisor for Eurasia and human rights for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Office of International Justice and Peace, went to Orissa in March to survey ongoing efforts to reintegrate displaced Christians. In one place, an entire village was displaced and living in a single camp. “They were living in tents, with six to seven families in a tent,” she said.

During her eight-day visit, Farris sensed an apprehension among Christians in Orissa. “In most instances the villagers have obviously suffered a huge trauma and are receiving counseling for it, but there is a certain sense of fear that continues to pervade because they are waiting for — they’re fearful that another attack may come,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India is spearheading efforts to provide emergency food, shelter and relief supplies to the displaced, in addition to rebuilding the nearly 5,000 homes that were destroyed, according to Farris.


Bill Flynn, a member of Ocean City (N.J.) Council 2560, teaches English grammar to a classroom of seminarians at Shanti Bhavan Minor Seminary in Berhampur, India. (Photo courtesy Bill Flynn)

The situation in Orissa is a bit different in the city of Berhampur, where Bill Flynn, a member of Ocean City (N.J.) Council 2560, teaches English and computer science at Shanti Bhavan Minor Seminary.

“It goes into the background more and more,” he said, regarding the violence in 2008. “The few weeks after, seminarians didn’t leave the compound alone. Now they leave in groups of three or four.”

Flynn was sold on the idea of teaching at the seminary after meeting the school’s rector, Father Joseph Valiaparambil. Not long after their initial conversation, Flynn was on a plane to Berhampur to begin his work. (Click here to read Flynn’s updates from India.)

So far, Flynn and Council 2560 have helped the seminary repair its whole plumbing system, re-drill a water well to reach clean water, set up a computer lab with five stations, and buy new bikes and fans for the seminarians, as well as tools for their garden.

Flynn said that there are a few big differences between the Catholic Church in the United States and in India. “People feel cheated if Mass isn’t two hours long,” he noted, adding that many Catholics in India leave for church at dawn and walk through dangerous neighborhoods to get there. The seminary experience too seems to be more demanding: During the final three years of a 13-year period of priestly formation, the seminarians participate in a “slum experience.” All seminarians are sent into a major slum area for three weeks to live on the streets with no money and only the clothes on their back.

Another Knight, Mathew George, grew up in the southern Indian state of Kerala, but has lived in the United States for the past 40 years. His family became longtime friends with Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she visited his home in India during his father’s illness.

Today, George operates a lay apostolate called Catholic Action Worldwide that supports needy people in India and pairs seminarians with financial sponsors in the United States.

The primary service of the Houston-based organization is to bring priests and religious into contact with dioceses and parishes in the United States that need them.

“If a parish in the United States wants a priest from India, we try to find one for them,” said George, who is a member of Bishop John L. Morkovsky Council 10290 in Houston.

Catholic Action Worldwide also enables people to provide basic needs for orphans ($144) medication and housing for people with Hansen’s disease ($180) or a new concrete and brick house for a homeless family ($1,000).

When the attacks in Orissa occurred in 2008, George quickly sent an e-mail message to the USCCB. And in response, the annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which takes place in November, included special prayers for Christians in India.


In solidarity with those in India and elsewhere, where divisions and tension test the resolve of the local Church, the faithful everywhere are constantly invited to join in prayer.

Pope Benedict XVI’s message for this year’s World Mission Sunday, which will be observed Oct. 24, places the understanding of international missions within the context of communion and asks all to be “protagonists of the Church’s commitment to proclaim the Gospel.”

The pope’s message further states: “The missionary impulse has always been a sign of vitality for our Churches, with their cooperation and their unique witness of unity, brotherhood and solidarity that gives credibility to heralds of the Love that saves!”

With support from Knights like Flynn and George, not to mention the millions of Catholics worldwide who have offered prayers and financial support, Christians in Orissa are currently moving back into homes from displacement camps. On June 29, a fast-track court set up in response to the 2008 attacks convicted a government official affiliated with the Hindu nationalist party with crimes related to the violence. Nevertheless, Christians continue to face challenges to their religious liberty.

Seven of India’s 28 states have passed or are in the process of approving “freedom of religion laws,” which, according to Farris and others, have been interpreted as anti-conversion laws that stifle evangelization. The laws criminalize conversion on the basis of “force, fraud or inducement.” But some public officials see the law’s consideration of “inducement” as including health care or education.

“When you have that kind of interpretation, then almost any action that can be taken to provide what in a normal Christian sense is charity, to help your neighbor, becomes inducement,” said Farris.

Catholic Action Worldwide treads lightly in this regard because the state of Kerala has one such law. “The seminarians and the orphans we are sponsoring, they are not in Kerala,” George said. “They are in the other southern states, because there are not restrictions there.”

The Gospel’s call to reconciliation and peace manifested itself in a unique way after the Orissa attacks, when a Hindu landowner took a bold step to help displaced Christians.

“After the attack, he had provided land for Christian families to put up tents while their houses were being rebuilt,” Farris said. “He had encouraged some of the other members of the Hindu community to join in this effort. But he, in essence, was a lone voice.”

For India to be a safer place for all religions, it needs more of these voices. And as the state and local governments continue to address the religious violence, Knights will offer their charitable work, and the global Church will pray for reconciliation and unity.


Brian Dowling is the creative and editorial assistant of Columbia magazine.