Church leaders greet newly elected Indian president

Courtesy visit did not mention issues of anti-Christian violence in the country
Church leaders greet newly elected Indian president

Leaders of Indian bishops pose for a photograph with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind after they visited him in New Delhi Aug. 24. (Photo by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India)

 

Catholic Church officials have met the newly elected Indian president to appraise him of work done by Catholics in the field of health, education and in serving the poor in the country.

Ram Nath Kovind was sworn in as India's 14th president July 25. He was nominated by a coalition led by the pro-Hindu ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules the federal government and various Indian states. The post of Indian president is largely ceremonial.

Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Indian Catholic bishops' conference, led the delegation that included two other cardinals and five bishops, all conference officials, to meet Kovind at the Rashrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi Aug. 24.

"It was a courtesy visit," Cardinal Cleemis told ucanews.com explaining that it is customary for church leaders to visit newly elected presidents and prime ministers on behalf of the Catholic community in the country.

"These meetings help present our identity," the cardinal said, adding that as the leader of the delegation he spoke to familiarize the president of the "outstanding services" the 19 million-strong Catholic Church provides in the country.

"We are a minority, but our services in education and healthcare, especially in the villages are largest" in the private sector, second only to the government,  Cardinal Cleemis said. "The president was appreciative of this," he said.

Catholics form 1.5 percent of India's 1.2 billion people and are the largest Christian group in the country where 2.3 percent are Christians.

Even though the meeting came against the backdrop of complaints that Christians are being targeted by hard-line Hindu groups in the name of conversions, church authorities stressed the meeting was strictly a courtesy visit.

Following the 2014 general election when the BJP came to power in New Delhi, several Hindu groups took this as a mandate to work for a Hindu-only India. As part of this, these groups stepped up their anti-Christian activities.

"We did not raise any issues in the meeting. We greeted him on behalf of the Catholics of India," Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi told ucanews.com.

Kovind had been earlier embroiled in a controversy when, as a BJP leader in 2010, he said "Islam and Christianity are alien to India." He further suggested people from these religions should not be given social benefits or quotas for government jobs and educational institutions, even if they come from a poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Constitutionally, India is secular nation that applies equal respect to all religions. However, hard-line Hindu groups, under the political patronage of the BJP, have been working to create a nation of Hindu hegemony. 

However, the bishops said they did not mention any of these issues.

"India is a democratic secular republic and we live by the sacred book of the country — the Indian Constitution," Cardinal Cleemis told the Indian president, according to the press statement.

The president, while addressing the prelates, stressed that India is "secular country (and) is one country and there was no minority and majority," the statement quoted him as saying.

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