S.K. Lawrence (right), a Christian activist, greets Nitish Kumar (left), the newly re-elected chief minister of India's Bihar state, after a swearing-in ceremony on Nov. 20. (ucanews.com photo)
Church leaders in eastern Indian Bihar state hope the election victory of a secularist chief minister will see more room for religious tolerance, amid worrying trends in anti-Christian sentiments nationwide.
Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal United party and his alliance won most of the seats in the 243-seat legislative assembly and was sworn in as state chief minister Nov. 20. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which rules the federal government and many other states, won 58 seats.
It was the third consecutive term for Nitish in an election largely seen as a fight between secular and hard-line Hindu forces.
"We hope the state will now more earnestly uphold tolerance, religious harmony and the constitutional rights of people, especially the marginalized," said Archbishop William D’Souza of Patna, based in the Bihar state capital.
The Jesuit archbishop, along with the four other bishops from the state, was scheduled to meet Nitish this week to offer him the Catholic community's support. The bishops are currently in Patna for the annual gathering of regional bishops.
Farther Anand Kumar, spokesman of Buxar diocese, described Nitish's victory as a "great relief" for Christians and religious minorities in Hindu-majority India.
"There was great fear psychosis at the way campaigns for the election were held. What would happen to us if the Hindu nationalist BJP swept the polls? So concerned were the people," he said.
The priest said he hoped the state, led by a secularist chief minister, would recognize the important role Christian institutions play in society.
"Christians render so much services in the state in various fields like education, health and social service. We expect the state to become more generous to us and give more positive support to our missionary enterprises, like recognition and aid for our rural schools," he added.
In states where the BJP is in power, Christian leaders and media report violence against clergymen, the raping of nuns and the jailing of priest on fabricated charges, and the banning of missioners from entering villages.
Bishop Cajetan Francis Osta of Muzaffarpur, also in Bihar, believes that the challenge for the new government is to set an example for the country by maintaining peace and harmony in the state, which will help restore the same throughout the country.
S.K. Lawrence, secretary of Alpsankhyak Isai Kalyan Sangh (minority Christian welfare forum), said Nitish’s election victory was a positive sign.
"We are happy that the divisive forces and hate mongers have been defeated," he said, referring to the BJP party, which is seen as the political wing of Hindu groups trying to create a Hindu-only India.
Christians "expect the new government to ensure the all-round development and safety of all communities, especially the religious minorities and weaker sections," he added.