Good ol’ Pope Benedict XVI seems to have a special affinity for things that stoke controversies. So unlike the more ‘saintly’ Pope John Paul II earlier, he is not really known to mince his words when it comes to things that should be better left unsaid. Some years back he had derided the Prophet Muhammad in his speech; later he had hinted on how Jews should return to the real fold by urging them to convert to Catholicism; supposedly when he was a cardinal in 1997, he had termed the Buddhist fate as form of ‘spiritually self-indulgent eroticism’. He has taken a tough stance on issues like birth control, HIV, homosexuality, etc. The list just goes on and on.
India also got a taste of Pope’s indiscretion recently, when he poked his nose in what can be termed as internal affairs of our nation. Pope Benedict has reportedly condemned the violence that has taken place in the state of Orissa and appealed to “religious leaders and civil authorities to work together to restore among members of the various communities the peaceful coexistence and harmony which have always been the distinguishing mark of Indian society’. This seemingly harmless comment gains notoriety if viewed in complete context of the communal clashes that are going on in the state of Orissa.
The eastern state of Orissa has been a flashpoint for clashes between Hindus and Catholics for the past few years. The reason has been the changing demographics of the region. But first a brief outline of the state; the nine largest and the eleventh largest state of the Indian union also happens to be one of the poorest. This poverty has encouraged a lot of Christian missionary organizations to set up base and start preaching their faith to the tribal population.
To be honest, if a person is dying from poverty being a Hindu or is ostracized against due to the caste-based discrimination; there is nothing bad if by changing his religion he can attain a better life or stature. But when he or she is being unduly influenced and his naiveté is taken advantage of, that’s just not right.
These missionary organizations have been able to carry on their religious agenda without much hindrance as the administration has turned a blind eye to it. They are easily able to influence the poverty stricken into their folds through monetary emoluments. The people who convert to the new faith are provided with food and shelter and the ones that don’t are left to suffer.
Thus right in the midst of the tribal land in Orissa, once can find churches and other such religious paraphernalia. The activity has increased in the past few years and this almost sudden change of demographics has resulted in lot of heightened tensions. The have-nots who continue to suffer are immensely jealous of the new haves. The whole issue came out in the open during the ghastly murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young kids some years back by Hindu fundamentalists. Post this event the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has increased steadily. And often nowadays one comes across such sectarian clashes in news reports from the region.
The latest flare up happened when some henchmen shot and killed a Hindu leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati. This murder resulted in mobs of Hindus torching missionary offices and churches in the region, leading to death of over a dozen people in the Kandamal region in Orissa. Pope Benedict expressed his solidarity with his ‘Christian brothers and sisters’ who have borne the brunt. Almost immediately, the Catholic Bishop Council of India, called for a day long closure of catholic schools and institutions across India as a mark of solidarity to the victims of violence.
All this is fine and can could be understood. But what the Pope should have known (and respected) is that this is completely an internal affair of a sovereign nation that has millions of Catholics residing peacefully with the Hindu populations. Every day scores of Indian lives are lost due to violence and terrorism, but never before was the Pope saddened like the way he was now. Never before did he express his solidarity with the people who suffered at the hands of such ghastly incidents. Indeed, does he feel as saddened for the millions in Gaza who suffer at the hands of the Jewish administration in Tel Aviv? Or the millions that died due to Iraqi invasion by a Catholic country?
The killings in Orissa have been a result of communal frenzy, but the perpetrators are criminals and cannot be branded as some religious individuals. Don’t we Indians hate it when after some minor clashes between the Hindus and Muslims, suddenly the Islamic countries start expressing their solidarity for their fellow Muslims in India. National identity is and must supersede religious identity. By expressing his grief for Catholic victims, the Pope is insulting millions of countrymen like me, who are equally appalled by the incidents.
The Pope should have respected the sentiments of Indian citizens and should have avoided talking about the whole incident at the moment. But then, Pope Benedict wouldn’t have been his natural self, if he hadn’t spoken out. After all, he isn’t like the earlier Pope, who though a religious leader, was a human first and a Christian later. How I wish, Pope Benedict could be likewise. But if not, the least he can do is not poke his nose in domestic affairs of our nation. Can you not, Pope?