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Indian cardinal pledges to support government aid programs

Issue of Dalits raised in meeting with Modi

<p>Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, president of the Indian bishops' conference.</p>

Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, president of the Indian bishops' conference.

  • Aasha Khosa, New Delhi
  • India
  • August 20, 2014
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The president of India's Catholic bishops Cardinal Baselios Cleemis (Isaac) Thottunkal met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pledging the Church's support for government education, health care and anti-poverty programs.

The Indian Church extended its support to Modi for his agenda of good governance and appealed to all Indians to set aside their religious differences for development, Cardinal Thottunkal, head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, told reporters in New Delhi on Tuesday, a day after his meeting with Modi.

The cardinal said his 22-minute meeting with the Modi, was "very cordial and a proper conversation".

Modi, who came to power in May in a landslide Bharatiya Janata Party election victory, was earlier seen as a Hindu hardliner, who supported making India a Hindu nation. He also was accused of tacitly supporting violence against Christians and Muslims.

"I assured the prime minister of the Church's support in three areas of governance: education, healthcare and eradication of poverty from rural areas," Cardinal Thottunkal told ucanews.com.

Christians, who comprise 2.3 percent of 1.2 billion Indians, are the second largest minority religious group in India to 177 million Muslims, the largest religious minority.

Cardinal Thottunkal said Modi was aware of the Church's role in rebuilding earthquake-hit villages in his home state of Gujarat. "He was aware of the Church's work and in fact offered praise for the work," the cardinal said.

The cardinal presented Modi with a plaque depicting the Last Supper. "He happily accepted the gift," he said. In the run up to the election Modi had refused to accept an Islamic skullcap as a gift.

The cardinal said he suggested to the prime minister that he develop stronger economic assistance programs for Dalit Christians, the poorest among India's Christians. Constitutional benefits, such as quotas in jobs, college admissions and state-sponsored welfare, are denied to them.

Christian leaders for years have demanded government help for Dalit Christians, saying the discriminatory denial of government assistance violates constitutional protections to religious freedom. 

"We believe that it is the responsibility of the prime minister and ruling party to uphold the constitution of India, which accepts religious diversity and allows everyone freedom to express and celebrate their faith," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Thottunkal suggested to Modi that "his government must find a different route" to help Dalits. "I told the prime minister that the poorest of the poor should be helped only as the poor" regardless of their religion, he said.

Modi told the cardinal he would look into his proposal, the cardinal said.

The cardinal said he was not concerned by Hindu hardline groups that were demanding that "all Indians identify themselves as Hindus".

"As long as the ruling party and the government's ideology is secular and believes in celebration of all faiths, we should not give importance to individual opinions," Cardinal Thottunkal said.

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