NEW DELHI (UCAN) -- A right-wing Hindu group has burned effigies of Pope Benedict XVI in central India, as Hindu leaders nationwide criticized the pontiff for his remarks about Indian laws and religious freedom.
On May 20, members of Dharma Sena (religious army) set fire to the pope's effigy in the district headquarters of Balaghat, Chhindwara, Jabalpur, Mandla, Narasinghpur and Seoni in Madhya Pradesh state, central India. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party) rules the state.
Similar protests had been planned in Jharkhand, a BJP-ruled state in eastern India, but the plan was abandoned without any reason given. However, some Hindu leaders there criticized the pope for his comments.
On May 18, the pope expressed concern about attempts to legally restrict the right to religious freedom when he welcomed Ambassador Amitava Tripathi, India's new representative to the Holy See. Some television channels and newspapers in India later characterized the pope's speech as a "tirade."
Some Hindu groups reacted sharply to the papal speech as inappropriate criticism of laws restricting religious conversion that exist in five Indian states including Madhya Pradesh. The Jharkhand government also plans to introduce such a law.
Uma Bharati former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, told media the pope's statement was a direct intervention in the internal affairs of India. According to her, the pope is trying to exert pressure on the Indian government to save Christians accused of conversion charges. She wants the federal government to take the pope's speech seriously.
Dharam Sena leader Sudhir Agrawal, who organized the effigy burning in Jabalpur, 815 kilometers southeast of New Delhi, said the pope's words proved that the Church engages in conversion in India. He told UCA News the Church lures poor Hindus through social services. This is why some state governments introduced laws to restrict conversion activities, he added.
Church leaders in India have defended the pope's comments.
Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi told UCA News May 22 the pope did not intend to interfere in India's internal matters. Cardinal Toppo, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, is based in the Jharkhand capital of Ranchi, some 760 kilometers east of Jabalpur.
The cardinal charged that the Hindu groups protested without reading the pope's speech. "There is nothing wrong in it. I have the original text of his speech," he said.
The Indian Church leader quoted the sentence at the center of the controversy: "The disturbing signs of religious intolerance which have troubled some regions of the nation, including the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom, must be firmly rejected as not only unconstitutional, but also as contrary to the highest ideals of India's founding fathers, who believed in a nation of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance between different religions and ethnic groups."
According to Cardinal Toppo, the pope "wishes good for India" and wants to have a good relationship with India, "and nothing else."
The pope's speech also "contained praise" for India and its democratic system, the cardinal continued, but the Hindu groups "could not see anything positive in the speech and interpreted it negatively."
Meanwhile, Jesuit Archbishop Pascal Topno of Bhopal urged Christians to remain calm at the Hindu group's protests. "I am not surprised at (the Hindu groups') behavior," Archbishop Topno told UCA News.
Bhopal, some 310 kilometers west of Jabalpur, is the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Archbishop Topno heads the regional bishops' group for the state.
Describing the Hindu protests as "a display of hatred," Archbishop Topno has asked people to exercise restraint and ignore the protests. The Church "does not believe in tit-for-tat behavior," he said.
Archbishop Topno asserted that the protests would not affect the Church's work in the country. "We will continue to work in the area in accordance with the constitutional right we are given," he added.
Regarding the effigy burning, Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur told UCA News that Christians can "only pray for the good conscience of those who are indulging in such activities."
Enos Ekka, the lone Christian minister in Jharkhand, condemned the BJP leaders' negative stand. "(The pope) is the head of the Church and he has the duty to think for Christians in the world. I don't find anything wrong in his speech," he told UCA News May 22.
Narotam Das, a Hindu priest in Ranchi, agreed that the "pope has done nothing wrong." According to him, the pope only expressed his concern for Catholics since he is their religious leader. "As a Hindu priest, I would express my concern if Hindus face discrimination in some countries," he told UCA News the same day.
On the contrary, a Hindu ascetic in Madhya Pradesh, Acharya Indrabhan, described the pope's statement as "a real threat to national integrity." He said the pope's speech infringed upon India's internal matters.
In the view of BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar, the pope's remarks were not relevant to India, which he said India has more freedom than many countries. "The state laws are not against conversion by conviction. But if people convert en masse, motives have to be there," he was quoted as saying by The Indian Express, a daily based in New Delhi.
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