Last week, the State Department made history by hosting the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The gathering which brought together hundreds of religious leaders, foreign ministers and representatives from civil society and international organizations is perhaps the most significant event in the name of religious freedom in the past 50 years. It’s also an important reminder of the essential role religious freedom plays in protecting democracy.
Coming from India, a country known for its long and beautiful religious history as well as its present religiously-incited tensions, I’m keenly aware of why faith leaders and governments must cooperate in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding. Religious intolerance, at both the civil and political levels, always leads to discrimination and oppression, as is the case with India’s anti-conversion laws.
Recently, the small state of Arunachal Pradesh became the subject of national debate when its chief minister unexpectedly announced he would repeal the state’s 40-year-old Freedom of Religion Act — a bill enacted in several Indian states that prevents religious conversion through “forcible” or “fraudulent” means.
According to Chief Minister Pema Kandhu, the law does the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. Instead of serving as a measure to protect Arunachal Pradesh’s indigenous religious communities from forced or fraudulent conversions, the law has been weaponized to oppress the freedom of religion of other communities. “The law could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians,” the chief minister said.
As is usual in India, not a day had gone by before the announcement drew heavy criticism. Local tribal group leaders slammed the announcement as “minority appeasement” and an attack on their indigenous culture. The reaction is not unlike what led to the formation of the act in the first place: Misplaced fear that other religious groups, like Christians and Muslims, want to force people into their faiths.
Despite the misunderstandings and controversy, repealing the act ahead of the upcoming general elections is an opportunity for Prime Minister Modi’s BJP party to break the stereotype that it cannot be a secular party and allow for religious freedom. It would be a fulfillment of the prime minister’s promise which he has announced on the global stage to be committed to religious freedom.
Doing so would also acknowledge that Indian Christians are as patriotic as any other Indian and are fervent in their commitment to Indian nationalism.
India is living through an intensely politically charged time. Everyone is campaigning for his personal vision of India. In fact, India has been gripped by such growing paranoia that some groups have been labeled as anti-national simply because they are a minority religion. Yet in most cases the accusation does not hold water. This has been the case with Christians.
Christianity’s contribution to national development and every section of public life and government, including the armed forces, far outstrips their population size. Moreover, the Christian community in India is not anti-national, anti-Hindu or anti- any political party. Their relationship with the Hindu community, and for that matter Muslims and other religious groups and communities, is very cordial across India.
For too long now colonial-era propaganda — which claims Christians are involved in forced and fraudulent conversions — has been used to demonize the Indian Christian community and set-up anti-conversion laws that heavily target Christians.
Such was the case in 2002 when Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, introduced an anti-conversion law in the state’s assembly. It was nothing but a political move to earn the Hindu vote, but it backfired. Religious minorities in the state came together to oppose the law. In the subsequent elections, Mrs. Jayalalithaa’s extreme policies led to her loss, and the new government that came into power repealed the anti-conversion law.
Contrary to the divisive accusations of forced conversions hurled against the Christian community, Christianity is not a religion that supplants local cultures. Going back to Tamil Nadu, we see a very Tamilian version of the Christian faith, which fully lives and expresses itself in the local culture.
Christianity is able to do this because it teaches that Jesus freed his followers from being trapped in any one culture, ideology or political structure. He allowed them to find the expression of the Christian faith within the beautiful aspects of their own cultures. Jesus enculturated himself in the Jewish world when he became a Jew in the first century, and he taught his disciples to do the same. Sadly, some Christians in the West have not understood this and have believed that others ought to conform to their version of Christianity.
The problem with the anti-conversion laws is that they end up suppressing religious freedom rather than protecting it. In North East India, where there’s a majority of Christians, local tribal culture has flourished and not diminished. Meghalaya’s matriarchal culture has continued among Christians — something, again, Western Christians will find hard to understand but women will celebrate. Even in folk music, the arts and literature there is nothing like ‘Christian art,’ a term I constantly come across in the West. A true understanding of Jesus’ teachings frees Christians from being trapped in one way of thinking or expressing their faith.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the BJP government Kandhu leads will be able to repeal the anti-conversion law in Arunachal Pradesh. If it does, it will be a major step to protect local Christians from attacks by those who are anti-Christian, and it will return credibility to the BJP that it has the ability to rule in a secular way. The opposition Congress party, which claims to be secular, has never repealed any anti-conversion law.
As the world convenes in Washington D.C. to discuss religious freedom, the BJP has the opportunity to show it believes patriotism isn’t defined by religion, but by our common bond as citizens of India.
(Joseph DSouza is the archbishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India. He also serves as the president of the All India Christian Council. Views expressed are personal)