A Catholic Church-organized program in New Delhi has called on Indian politicians to cease being divisive and using religion as a way of attracting votes. Prominent opposition leader Mamta Banerjee was among several speakers voicing concerns over the divisions in Indian society during an assembly organized by the Indian Catholic bishops' conference on July 31. "Some people are trying to divide the country in the name of religion, caste and creed. But we can't sit here as mute spectators," Banerjee, chief of Trinamool (grassroots) Congress party, told the gathering of 1,000 people. "Time has come for us unite and raise our voices," she said. With the theme of "Love your neighbor," the assembly was held as leaders of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) press their pro-Hindu ideology ahead of general elections early next year. Banerjee, who is also the chief minister of West Bengal state, said the theme of the gathering was rightly chosen because "some communal forces are trying to dictate what we should eat, dress and how we should practice our faith." She was alluding to cases of harassment and violence
committed against Christians and Muslims by hard-line Hindu groups ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power leading the BJP in 2014. Leaders like Banerjee accuse BJP governments in New Delhi and most northern Indian states of supporting Hindu groups who attack religious minorities in an effort to project the party as a pro-Hindu champion. Banerjee said some governments were targeting Christian organizations with an agenda of tarnishing the Catholic Church and missioners. She said the recent order to investigate some Christian organizations including the Missionaries of Charity, which St. Mother Teresa founded in her state's capital city of Kolkata, was one such move. "These missionaries and the church in general have been doing much service and no one can deny that and the best example was our own Mother Teresa who worked tirelessly for poor people," she said. Father Joseph Manipadam, secretary of the India bishops' office for education, told ucanews.com that the assembly was held to promote discussion over the challenges the nation faces. "We wanted to give the message that Christianity does not promote hatred but always speak of love and brotherhood," he said. Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the bishops' conference, told ucanews.com that it organized the assembly because "a negative atmosphere of hate and violence
exists in the country ... we wanted to stress a positive approach." He and several other leaders at the assembly called on politicians to stop using religion for votes and criticized their negative stances toward minorities such as Dalits and tribal people. Archbishop Thomas D'Souza of Calcutta, the chairman of the Indian bishops' conference office for education and culture, said: "Any attempt to polarize and divide people should be discouraged and condemned." Supreme Court lawyer Franklin Caesar said that even six decades after Indian independence Christians of Dalit origin "are still struggling to get social security rights" that their counterparts in the Hindu religion enjoy.
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Christian and Muslim Dalits are excluded from social concessions that could uplift their social status — such as for employment and educational quotas — on grounds that their religions do not recognize the caste system. India has some 27 million Christians and at least 60 percent of them come from Dalit
or indigenous backgrounds who struggle socially and economically.