A letter and the backlash

Published : Jun 20, 2018 12:30 IST

 Archbishop of Goa Filip Neri Ferrao.

Archbishop of Goa Filip Neri Ferrao.

Filipe Neri Ferrao , the Archbishop of Goa and Daman, caused quite a stir this year with his annual pastoral letter. Ferrao’s 15-page letter, which is circulated within the Catholic community, essentially called for more social responsibility towards the poor, their families, community and society. But within it, under a subsection headed “The Social Mission of the Church”, the Archbishop fired a salvo, speaking of extreme poverty, the trampling of human rights and a danger to the Constitution.

Ferrao may or may not have anticipated the explosive reaction to his letter. But the subsection deeply upset Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters, who retaliated with comments which claimed that the letter was part of the Vatican’s attempts at interfering in Indian politics, that the Church had finally exposed itself to be part of a larger conspiracy to destabilise India, and that all this was because of the frustration at foreign funding being blocked by the stringent regulations imposed by the BJP government.

However, Christians and secularists said that the Archbishop had made such a statement clearly because the situation called for it. He was well aware that the letter would go out into the public domain. Therefore, it indicated his deep concern, which probably led him to make this bold move, they said. Ferrao’s letter came two weeks after the Archbishop of Delhi, Anil Couto, sent out a letter to his parish priests in whicn he called for a year-long prayer campaign to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere”.

“We must acknowledge what is happening in the country, particularly the marginalisation of minorities,” said Edwin Fonseca, president of the Goa-based All India Catholic Union. “The Archbishop has just voiced his opinion on the realities of the current political climate.” Ferrao’s office has decided to play down the controversy. Its official line is that the Archbishop takes no names nor targets anyone, that some parts of the letter have been taken out of context, and that the Archbishop’s writing had to be read in the right spirit and context.

In a missive to the Archbishops, Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said: “A season of fatwas and farmaans (diktats) has started. There is protection for minorities in India. There is constitutional protection, social security and religious freedom for minorities. Nobody should make such fatwas and farmaans and harbour any misunderstandings.” On Twitter, BJP national general secretary Bhupender Yadav decried the “political appeal by a religious head which marks a new dangerous trend”.

Fonseca said that when sadhus, godmen and priests blatantly malign minorities, sometimes even using abusive language, it somehow seems to go unnoticed.

“It is not unusual for Christian priests to make political statements or guide their parish during times of elections or other political situations. When a leader of the stature of an Archbishop makes a statement we need to respect it, not lash back,” he said. The message is strong even though the Archbishop does it within the confines of a community letter. The letter, titled “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4:18), largely speaks to the community to help the poor using their social consciousness. Excerpts: Under the subsection titled “The Social Mission of the Church”:

The Situation of Poverty in India

i) Extreme Poverty. In India, around 22 per cent of the population lives in extreme hunger: this has become the usual scene. Among the poor, the conditions in which children live are more precarious. According to the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, 30 per cent of the global population of children living in poverty resides in India. While India is struck by extreme poverty, 73 per cent of our country’s resources are controlled by 10 per cent of the population. The existing extreme poverty is therefore the result of the rampant social injustice prevailing in the country. In this context, Caritas-India, through its various projects, is doing commendable work in helping eradicate poverty in our country.

ii) Trampling of Human Rights. People are being uprooted from their land and homes in the name of development. Pope Francis says that “the first victim of development is the poor person”. It is easier to trample upon the rights of the poor because those who will raise their voice for them are very few. In recent times we see a new trend emerging in our country, which demands uniformity in what and how we eat, dress, live and even worship: a kind of monoculturalism. Human rights are under attack and democracy appears to be in peril. The various minorities fear for their safety. In short, respect for law is frankly on the decline in this country.

iii) Danger to our Constitution. At the time of elections, the candidates confuse the minds of many people by making false promises. And the people, on their part, often sell their precious vote for selfish, petty gain. Today, our Constitution is in danger, reason why most of the people live in insecurity. Having this concern in mind, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has recently declared in its Plenary Assembly that the Church in India should diligently promote and stand by values like secularism, freedom of speech and freedom to practise one’s religion enshrined in the Constitution. In this context, particularly as the general elections are fast approaching, we must strive to know our Constitution better and work harder to protect it.


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