Indian Bishops' Conference secretary-general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas (left) with president Cardinal Baselios Cleemis. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/ucanews.com)
At a politically sensitive time in India, Catholic bishops from across the country are planning to discuss ways to partner state and federal governments in their mission in the Hindu-majority country.
Some 200 bishops, representing 20 million Catholics spread across 176 dioceses, will attend their biennial convention in Bangalore on Feb. 2-9 ahead of elections in some key states and national elections next year.
The meet comes "at a time when the Catholic Church in India is facing immense challenges," said Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) secretary-general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas.
Christian leaders say violence from hardline Hindu groups against religious minorities has increased since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi in 2014. Hindu groups took the BJP's election victory as a mandate for them to step up action for their goal of making India a Hindu-only nation, they say.
With the BJP controlling governments in 19 of 29 Indian states, "groups and organizations wishing to promote cultural and religious nationalism are becoming bolder," said a note from Bishop Mascarenhas.
It is election year in eight states, including the Christian-majority Meghalaya and Nagaland states that are due to elect a new government in February. National elections are also due in 2019 when the BJP-led government completes its five year term.
In recent months India has witnessed the murder of dissenting journalists and attacks on schools and pupils in the name of religion and culture, the note said, adding that these are "disturbing signs in our traditionally secular and largely peaceful society."
Support from both federal and state authorities has helped diffuse tension and check Hindu violence against Christians recently in central India, a region that regularly reports anti-Christian violence. "However, the way the poison of communal, caste and religious hatred is being spread is troubling and disquieting," it said.
Against this background, the bishop has chosen to focus on the theme "I am with you always, even to the end of the ages. United in diversity for a mission of mercy and witness."
Bishop Mascarenhas said the first part of the theme speaks of Jesus' assurance to his followers, which gives the church "the strength and courage in its mission of service and witness."
The bishops will discuss how "the church can be the leaven in the dough" so that people "cutting across religious, social and political lines can unite to preserve the secular fabric of the country and uphold constitutional values," Bishop Mascarenhas said.
The CBCI is technically not the conference of national bishops mandated in canon law because bishops belonging to each of India's three Catholic rites have canonical bodies independent of this body. The largest Latin rite bishops have their own conference, while both Eastern Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar rites have their own synods to govern their churches.
Although the bishops' national conference cannot make decisions binding on individual churches and dioceses, it is "a common body of all the bishops to facilitate common action in matters of interests to the church," Bishop Mascarenhas told ucanews.com.
The bishops' body plans policies and guidelines for the entire church. A major issue of discussion will be ways of partnering governments at state and federal levels in development projects with a special concern for the socially poor Dalit people and indigenous communities and other marginalized ethnic groups, Bishop Mascarenhas said.
The conference will also elect a president and two vice-presidents for a term of two years.