Monday, November 14, 2011

Can’t preach in free land

The arrest of evangelist William Lee in Kochi on October 14 on charges of violation of visa regulation is nothing new.

A few years ago one Bishop Cooper was badly beaten up in Kerala by goons because he was found preaching Christianity and the Kerala police immediately served him a notice of deportation. A 69-year-old Italian nun, Sr Angela Bruno, has applied thrice for a visa to visit India since 2008 with no success.

The Indian embassy in Italy neither gives reasons for it nor issues a visa. I often receive phone calls or emails from around the world complaining of priests and nuns being denied visa by the Indian embassies without assigning any reason for denial.

In contrast, it was indeed fascinating to see the two men of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) chanting with cymbals, as if in trance and distributing free literature at Nizamuddin (Delhi) railway station a few weeks ago.

While being pleasantly reminded of Meera Bai, I was intrigued, and to some extent disturbed, observing the freedom with which the two “missionaries” performed in a public place.

When the train finally left the platform at 10.15 pm, my fellow passenger travelling to Indore said to me: “should we not be all ashamed that while we have not read the Bhagvad Gita (he didn’t know that I had), this American has internalised the Holy Book and has come to believe in Lord Krishna?”

What caused the intrigue was not the discovery that one of the two Iskcon “missionaries” was an American and a probable convert from Christianity as there are hundreds of thousands of them who have left the Church to embrace other religions, but that no one attacked him or no police went after them. This was not the first time that I had seen a white American or a European with shaved head and a ponytail, donning a dhoti and enthusiastically proclaiming the merit of the Bhagvad Gita.

On other occasions and at different places, I have come across many such “missionaries” putting on saffron robes — in Hardwar, Rishikesh, Pushkar, Varanasi — going about their business making many Hindus proud and some, like my co-traveller, guilty.

There is not a single week that passes without me receiving a message from Evangelical Fellowship of India that in some part of India or the other, a pastor — an Indian citizen — is not attacked brutally along with the congregation and his church set ablaze.

While the case of Graham Staines or Kandhamal or the series of attacks in Karnataka might be considered extreme, it is quite common to find cases of “persecutions” of Christians in different parts of the country, particularly in the BJP ruled states. The police, being largely Hindus, often refuse to register an FIR.

As the spokesperson of the Delhi Archdiocese my question to the Government of India as well as to foreign governments are:

* Why are there two sets of rules for foreigners who are Christians and those who have renounced Christianity to embrace Hinduism or a similar religion?

* If Indian sadhus and sadhvis are granted visas to go and openly proselytise Christians in America and Europe, why is that courtesy not extended reciprocally to the citizens of those countries while visiting India?

* Why is it that one can buy volumes of the Bhagvad Gita on railway stations and not copies of the Bible, Quran or the Guru Granth Sahib?

Many of my Hindu friends are seen heading for America and Europe without any visa restrictions. Baba Ramdev recently bought a 200 acre plot of land in Scotland to promote his yoga and related activities. Leave alone buying land, a Christian undergoes a harrowing time before s/he can obtain a visa to come to India.

And if at all a visa is granted, it comes with a rider, like in the case of Mr Lee that he would not be allowed to preach anywhere. And yet there are countless instances of foreigners giving discourses on various Hindu sects or philosophies.

So are Christians to live in this so-called “vibrant democracy” as second-class citizens because the religion of majority in India is Hinduism and because the rules restricting freedom to Christian foreigners are drawn up by ministers and bureaucrats who belong to that majority religion?

The first time foreign missionaries were rejected visas was in 1952. Justice Mukherjee of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, however, in his historic 1954 judgment in the case of Ratilal Panchand vs state of Bombay wrote: “Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to every person and not merely citizens of India, the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”

Would it be the ministry of home affairs or of external affairs which would answer why Christian missionaries — be they Indians or foreigners — are discriminated against as compared to other missionaries belonging to the majority Hindu religion? Is freedom of religion only for Hindus? Will the home ministry come up with more stringent actions against those who attack Christian pastors?

The writer, a founder-member of Parliament of Religions, is currently the director of communication of the Delhi Catholic Church

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Our View: You nailed it Fr. Dominic. Asked all the right questions.