Indian Archbishop Assails Opposition to Religious Conversions

Proclaiming the Gospel Is Our Right, Says Gandhinagar Prelate

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GANDHINAGAR, India, DEC. 18, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Conversion is not the work of the Church, but rather of the Holy Spirit, says Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, who defends the liberty of people to change their religion.



"We only proclaim the Gospel, the message of Jesus Christ," the archbishop-elect of the Gandhinagar Archdiocese told SAR News in an interview. "That is our right and the proclamation of the Gospel will go on. Nobody can take away this right. Anybody can proclaim and promote his/her religion."

The archbishop compared the proclaiming and promoting of one's religion to the ongoing electioneering in the state of Gujarat.

"All parties proclaim their ideology and try to win people to their side," he said. "But it is for the individual to hear the parties, read about them, and then finally vote for the party he/she thinks best."

Antagonism and opposition to religious conversion is not justifiable, the archbishop added.

"In the final analysis anybody who changes religion is taking a very courageous step," he said. "In spite of the opposition, some people do convert because God has given them the grace to do so. Nobody can oppose this change brought about by the Holy Spirit in the inner self of a person."

According to the archbishop, there is opposition to conversion in India because the opponents are not prepared to accept the reality of the inner freedom of a person. Also, vested interests do not like the services of the Church personnel or for that matter, any other person or voluntary organizations engaged in human rights and development, he said.

"These vested interests take the name of religion and make it an emotional issue. This is not fair," he stressed. "The real vociferous protests should be against the unjust social structures and various injustices."

The archbishop answered a wide range of questions on the creation of the Gandhinagar Archdiocese, his elevation as the archbishop, and his transfer from the Diocese of Ahmedabad.

Archbishop Fernandes sees his elevation and the establishment of the Gandhinagar Archdiocese as a credit to the whole Church in Gujarat, especially the missionaries who have toiled in this land since the baptism of the first local Christians in 1893. He will be installed as the archbishop of Gandhinagar on Dec. 22.

"Through our existing parishes and mission stations we are doing a lot in the field of education and medical services," he said. "The thrust of the new Archdiocese will be to reach out to more and more people through social service activities of the Church."

He has plans to start health-care institutions to specially help AIDS patients. And he expressed his willingness to open new mission stations wherever people come forward and ask for the services of the Church.

The Federation of Indian-American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) has expressed its deep concern about the outcome of the election results in Gujarat over the weekend, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a two-thirds majority, the Misna missionary agency reported.

According to the press release issued in Washington, D.C., FIACONA said that the outcome is seen as a major blow to the "pluralist democracy" and the future of over 40 million Indian Christians and 130 million other religious minorities living in India.

FIACONA President Jayachand Pallekonda said the previous BJP government in Gujarat unleashed an unprecedented level of violence against certain minority religious groups last February, with the help of trained Hindu militia.

More than 2,000 civilians were killed in less than two weeks of violence, which was for the first time carried out by the direction of the ruling party in the name of the Hindu religion in India.

The terror campaign against the religious minorities, "an experiment" as BJP described it, in the name of "Hindutva" (an all-encompassing Hinduism) helped the party to consolidate the Hindu vote. BJP leaders had vowed to repeat the Gujarat "experiment" in the rest of India, if re-elected.

One of the influential leaders of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP-World Hindu Council, a sister organization of BJP), Praveen Togadia, confirmed on Sunday that Hindutva would be the central theme for future elections in India.

Characterizing the Gujarat election results as a turning point in the country's politics, he said only those who talk of Hindu interests could rule India. He further said the election result in Gujarat is a victory for the Hindutva ideology and predicted that India will become a Hindu theocracy within the next two years. The experiment against religious minorities proved profitable for BJP.

FIACONA has called upon Western governments, including the U.S. and British governments, to treat the development in India as an immense threat to the "pluralism" in the largest democratic nation with over 1 billion people. Moreover, FIACONA has urged the international community not to ignore such destructive signs like this in India, for any short-term strategic gains the BJP may offer on the war on terrorism.