India’s Eastern rite Church seeks clarification on controversial law

Bishops express concern over violence and warn of a threat to India's secular nature
 India’s Eastern rite Church seeks clarification on controversial law

India's Syro-Malabar rite bishops attend their week-long synod that began on Jan. 7 in Kakkanad, near Kochi in Kerala state. The bishops have asked the federal government to clarify if a recently amended law violates secular principles of Indian constitution. (Photo: Supplied) 

Bishops of India's eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church have urged the federal government to clarify amendments made to the country's citizenship law on Jan. 11, a day after the new law came into force.

The prelates' call came during their ongoing Bishops' Synod, the Church's top decision-making gathering, at their headquarters in Kochi city in southern Kerala state.

Of the 64 bishops, 57 are attending the Jan. 7-15 synod.

India's federal government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 on Dec. 11, 2019.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) aims to grant citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan if they are not Muslims. The new law also relaxes the requirement of residence in India from 11 years to five years for such migrants.

Since the amendment, the country has witnessed widespread violent protests seeking to scrap it on the grounds that it violates the secular fabric of the country as it was biased against Muslims.

Against this background, "the bishops want the government to clarify doubts over the new law and protect the secular character of the country undiluted," said Father Antony Thalachelloor, Synodal secretary of the Syro-Malabar Media Commission.

The bishops are "concerned about developments" and wanted government "to protect the Constitution and its secular character," the priest said.

"The secular character of our constitution shall not be under any doubt," he said, explaining the reason for bishops seeking clarification.

The bishop also urged the government to grant citizenship to refugees in the country without any religious discrimination.

The bishops also expressed concern over attempts by the government to suppress peaceful public protests against the CAA. 

More than 25 people have died after protests against the CAA turned violent, and many more have sustained injuries.

Some other Christian groups also wanted the government to review the law.

The Indian Christian Women Movement (ICWM) on Jan. 9 urged the federal government to roll back the "unwanted exercise" of (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) and focus on "real issues affecting" the country.

The NRC aims to identify illegal immigrants who entered India after Mar. 25, 1971, and deport them to their native countries. The NRC is considered a method of identifying illegal migrants.

"In the stubborn insistence to go ahead with the NRC and CAA, we see nothing but a strategy to divert the attention of the people from the real issues and the development agenda," the ecumenical body said in its letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The movement asked these steps are important to the government when the economy is in a shambles. The letter listed increasing unemployment, rising prices and a fall in production as the major issues of the country that require the urgent attention of the government.

Joycia Thorat, a signatory of the letter, told UCA News that the government's "divisive policies further weaken the already fragile economy."

Another ecumenical body,  All Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights forum, representing Christians in the southern Karnataka state on Jan. 9 urged the federal government to grant citizenship to illegal migrants not based on religion but the merits of each individual case.

"We have given memoranda to the President of India and the Prime Minister through the Governor of Karnataka urging them to abolish religion-centric citizenship for migrants," said its president Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore.

The archbishop told reporters that the forum supported the government's move to reduce the duration of citizenship by naturalization from 11 years to five years.

"Religion should never be the criterion for citizenship of a country. Nor is violence a solution when there is a difference of opinion," the forum stated.

It urged the federal government to seek dialogue with those opposing the act and come to "an agreement about the way forward with justice, equity, and fairness. There is no harm in backtracking or changing course if this is necessary for the good of the country and our people."

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