Indian church leaders have expressed shock and surprise after an article was published claiming dozens of bishops attended the launch of a Christian forum by a Hindu nationalist organisation.
The church leaders dismissed the report as propaganda, saying four bishops attended a Christmas gathering they did not know was an event led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), or RSS.
The RSS is a Hindu nationalist voluntary organisation and the ideological fountainhead of the Hindu nationalism espoused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which has a reputation for anti-minority rhetoric, including against India’s Christians, which comprise just 2% of the population.
“A senior RSS Pracharak [official], who is also the ‘Margarshak’ (guide) for the Muslim Rashtriya Manch [a national forum] since its inception, confirmed to ET that efforts are on to reach out to the Christians, and a meeting for the same was held on December 17,” the Economic Times reported on 4 January.
“On December 17, 4-5 Archbishops, 40-50 Reverend Bishops from across 10 to 12 states met and it was decided to develop a movement. This is preparing the ground to lay the seeds for an organisation,” Indresh Kumar, a member of RSS’ National Executive, told ET.
The article hailed the meeting at the Constitution Club near the Parliament, titled “Christmas Message for Love, Peace and Harmony from Indian Soil”, as “the first such outreach to the clergy made through a Sangh [RSS]-backed initiative.”
“I am surprised by this news report,” Alwan Masih, General Secretary of the Church of North India Synod, told World Watch Monitor.
During the half an hour he spent at the Constitution Club, to which he was invited by a Christian lawyer, Masih said: “Neither did I see any meeting taking place there, nor participate in any such meeting whatsoever as reported in the ET.”
“When I reached there a little later than 5:15 p.m., a group was singing Christmas carols and some six leaders from different faiths, including Bishops, were sitting on the dais,” he said.
“The organisers later called me to the dais and asked me to bring Christmas greetings, which I did, specifically mentioning that Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly.” explained Masih, who was accompanied by CNI bishop Warris Masih of Delhi to the “Christmas meet”.
Catholic Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, head of the Faridadbad diocese of the Syro Malabar church in Kerala, told World Watch Monitor “the news reports have come as a shock to me”.
“I was invited for a Christmas gathering by some Hindu leaders. Since there were several incidents of attacks on churches prior to Christmas last year, I thought it was an occasion to promote harmony and goodwill, and accepted the invitation,” said Bharanikulangara, who attended the “Christmas meet” along with Catholic Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas of the Syro Malankara Delhi diocese. “But I never knew that our presence would be used for such propaganda.”
Soon after delivering his greetings to the “meet”, Archbishop Bharanikulangara said he rushed out to attend a Christmas get-together hosted by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India the same evening. The annual CBCI Christmas gathering was attended by top church leaders, led by three of the four Cardinals in India, diplomats and other dignitaries, while Rajnath Singh, BJP leader and federal Home Minister of India, was the chief guest.
“We deplore this deliberate attempt by the RSS to float a false news [story] to give the impression that church leaders were supporting them. Where are the 40 bishops from 11 states?” A C Michael, spokesperson for the United Christian Forum, told World Watch Monitor.
Contrary to the RSS claim of 40-50 bishops, just four bishops attended: two Catholic, one Orthodox and one CNI.
“I was stunned by the news,” said Michael, who posted the link to the article to the UCF email group, leading to furious online debate from Christians across the nation.
“This is a political ploy. The RSS is desperate to create an impression that a section of the Christian community is supporting them ahead of state elections,” Michael added, saying that the media had “played into RSS propaganda. They should have checked the veracity of the RSS claim”.
Five states, including the Christian heartland of the southern state of Kerala, will go to the polls in the coming months.
“There is a clear attempt to divide the Christian community. Hence, we all need to be careful,” said Samuel Jayakumar, Delhi-based spokesperson for the National Council of Churches in India, in his response to the online debate.
He added that several Christians who attended the RSS event confirmed to him that they were not aware it was set up by the RSS.
RSS leader Kumar did not respond to World Watch Monitor’s repeated attempts to contact him.
Following the controversy, UCF has called for a national conference on 13 February.
The news of the purported attempt to launch the Christian forum came a day after Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, in his address to a rally of over 100,000 RSS supporters in Pune city, discarded its usual Hindu nationalist and anti-minority rhetoric.
“Accept all the diversities and look at others with affection in all circumstances,” Bhagwat told the crowd. “Consider others in your place. They all are ours. The society gets its power from the social unity. A person behaves when he realises that all are equal”.