To cry persecution in the Missionaries of Charity FCRA license row is to give in to the politics of victimization
On October 30 last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Pope Francis at the Vatican, a meeting Modi described as “very warm” and the Vatican described as “cordial”. The Prime Minister then tweeted that he had invited the Pope to visit India and India’s External Affairs Ministry confirmed that the Pope had accepted.
It should simply be seen as a meeting between India’s prime minister and the head of a religious order that has the second-largest following in the country. The pope is not a “head of state” in the conventional sense of the term and the UN does not recognize him as such. Under the Lateran Treaty, a purely bilateral treaty concluded in 1929, King Victor Emanuel of Italy granted the Vatican independent status. It has no separate citizenship or formal government.
What was admitted to the UN in 1948 as a “non-member state” with only observer status was not the Vatican but the “Holy See”. The “Holy See” is the supreme governing body of the Catholic Churches around the world. The pope is appointed as its leader, not by political process but by virtue of canon law. Vatican City is considered only the “vassal” territory of the Holy See.
That being the reality, not one but two BJP PMs had visited the Vatican and hosted the Pope in India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had visited the Vatican in June 2000. A year earlier, in November 1999, his government had facilitated a visit by Pope John Paul II to India, during which the pope issued a controversial appeal: “Just as the first millennium saw the cross firmly planted in the soil of Europe, and the second in that of America and Africa, may the third Christian millennium witness a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital.
Interestingly, President Vladimir Putin has met Pope Francis three times in the past eight years, but not once has invited him to visit Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church continues to cling to the age-old position of “non-welcoming” a papal visit. Orthodox denominations – in Russia and other countries – insist that Catholics refrain from “stealing sheep”, a euphemism for proselytizing. Interestingly, Catholics themselves complain about the same thing about Mormons and Pentecostals in Europe and America.
These facts are important for understanding some basics. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Modi, all Indian Prime Ministers have not only upheld constitutional decorum but have also displayed the epitome of India’s ethos of respect for all religions. The Indian Constitution zealously protects “freedom of religion” as a fundamental right. It is in this spirit of pluralism that Prime Minister Modi met the Pope and invited him to India.
Christian missionaries of various denominations have made full use of this constitutional freedom and pluralistic ethos to propagate their religion in India for centuries. There is no merit in the argument that Catholics do not convert. Catholic Christianity in India developed over the centuries thanks to the first proselytizing missions of the Portuguese and the Spaniards.
Although there have been controversies over mass conversions and conversions by fraudulent means, the fundamental right of religious freedom has never been hindered by any government in India, let alone a BJP government. But then, if the conversions are legitimate, so are the reconversions, over which the apologists are crying out.
This policy of victimization has been an integral part of some missionaries and their apologists. “Christianity in danger” is a red rag they generously display whenever they are asked to respect the law of the land. The latest controversy over the extension of the FCRA to Missionaries of Charity (MoC) is a good example. To date, several facts have come out. It wasn’t just the MoC – thousands of other NGOs were also denied the extension on the grounds stipulated by the MHA. They included many Hindu charities and in one case even an NGO affiliated with Sewa Bharati, which has links to the Sangh Parivar. Many have appealed the MHA’s decision. In the case of the MoC, the extension was granted despite the fact that they did not appeal.
Yet the victimization machine has become overactive, from columns in the Indian media to appeals to the British Parliament. Undoubtedly, the department should have handled the matter more diligently. But the charity must also remember that it has an obligation to follow Indian law, which does not see religion in any application. Even now, nearly 50,000 NGOs are eligible for FCRA extensions. Many of them, including the MoC, are Christian NGOs. The misappropriation of foreign funds for personal purposes, such as the purchase of vehicles in personal names, the distribution of cash endowments at weekly church gatherings, and their misuse for administrative expenses invites scrutiny for which prestigious charities like the MoC must always be available. The taller you are, the greater the control will be. A Nobel Prize does not exempt someone from the law of the land.
Charity and service are not new to India and are not the exclusive domain of any religious institution. They are an integral part of Indian cultural life. The Sangh Parivar itself runs almost 2 lakh service projects in the remotest corners of the country. Missionaries run many educational and health projects, as do Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Muslim charities. But whenever an act of charity or proselytism is scrutinized by law enforcement, apologists spring into action, casting communal motives on the government and castigating the Sangh Parivar. This is victimhood politics, pure and simple.
Unfortunately, it gains credence when those on the other side even abuse the good work missionaries do and glorify the controversies that surround these charities. Mother Teresa and her charity attract some criticism globally, but so do many others from all religions. Linking the specific MHA legal action to other controversies and disparaging all missionary institutions will only perpetuate the myth that Christians are persecuted in India.
The author is a board member of the India Foundation