Fr. Nigel Barrett, Archdiocese of Bombay.

‘We can’t claim this to be a miracle’

Print edition : October 04, 2013

Rev. Nigel Barrett: "We don't have a dispute with Mr. Sanal." Photo: by special arrangement

Interview with Fr. Nigel Barrett, spokesperson, Archdiocese of Bombay.

ON March 5, 2012, a woman passing by a roadside crucifix saw water dripping from the feet of Jesus Christ’s image. A non-Christian, she spread the word and soon the site was thronged by people who thought it was a miracle. The crucifix was across the road from Our Lady of Velankanni Church in the Mumbai suburb of Irla.

A television channel covering the incident brought Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, to the site. He debunked the miracle theory and said it was water flowing from some damaged plumbing. Members of a group called the Association of Concerned Catholics challenged Edamaruku, and a battle of words began which culminated in a television studio debate between Edamaruku and Bishop Agnelo of the Archdiocese of Bombay.

Soon after the incident, a first information report (FIR) was filed by the Association of Concerned Catholics against Edamaruku under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Knowing that the authorities would come down strongly on blasphemy charges, Edamaruku feared for his freedom and fled India. He has not yet returned. The case was popularly referred to as Sanal Edamaruku versus the Catholic Church. Frontline spoke to Rev. Nigel Barrett, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bombay. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did this become such a big case if the Church agrees that it was not a miracle?

There are two parts to the story. The first part is with regard to Mr. Sanal’s statement about the incident. He says there is a rational explanation for what happened. We ourselves would say we cannot claim this to be a miracle. If we were to investigate all the evidence presented, it definitely didn’t seem like a miracle. There is no need for a declaration on our part because the normal process would have been that the local church speaks to the Cardinal who then appoints a team of experts. But there was no appeal from the local church even… it just was not considered important enough. There have been such occasions in the past and we have acted to prevent mass hysteria. There is a certain sense of gullibility in people probably because of the pain and desire for something miraculous to happen in their lives.

So to this extent we do not have any dispute with Mr. Sanal. What we have difficulty with is that for a person who is the head of the Indian Rationalist Association he made certain statements that he has been unable to back up with documentation. One, that priests create miracles out of nothing because people are leaving the Church and so they do this to get people back. This way they can also collect money and build bigger and more magnificent churches. We said if there are such priests, draw our attention to them. Two, he said that Christians claim they are not idol worshippers but this is an indicator that they are idol worshippers. We said there is a difference between venerating and respecting something... the cross is a reminder of what Jesus did for us. It has special significance for us but it is not divine in itself. In no way are we worshipping the cross itself.

The third unwarranted statement was that the Pope and the Church are against science. There was no need to bring the Pope into the picture. Yes, there have been issues with the Church as to a scientific approach but the Church has also been one of the ambassadors of modern education. Yes, there have been dark periods, but to make a blanket statement… it is not responsible. The Church does advocate scientific research into things like this.

The last statement is that the Archbishop has demanded an apology. Please see the context of this. The Archbishop has not demanded an apology. He said the statements Mr. Sanal made are hurtful to the Christian community. We are saying, “If you have made those statements, then apologise. If not, then deny that you have made them and we will accept that and close the issue.”

We sent him a note saying these are the statements which have been attributed to you, so please clear it up. But we have received absolutely no response from him.

Who filed the FIR?

It was a group of people called the Association of Concerned Catholics. We consider them a group that’s on the fringe and do not represent the Church in any way.

I am not a legal expert but I have talked to lawyers. They told me there was no need for Mr. Sanal to have left the country. Yes, he would have been arrested because that’s the law but he would have had to have been produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of his arrest and the magistrate in all likelihood would have thrown out the case. Alternatively, the magistrate may not have thrown it out since the blasphemy laws are particularly tough. The blasphemy law is an archaic law that needs to be changed. It’s possibly not something that would have gone against him because there is nothing defamatory or blasphemous in what he said.

If he withdrew his statements…

Then I don’t think there would be any difficulty…. We would put greater pressure on them to withdraw the case.

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