His head covered with a handkerchief and sandal paste smeared on his forehead, Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal sits with Hindu leaders. And he lets Hindu girls tie sacred threads on his right hand as a mark of them accepting him as a brother. For the Archbishop of Bhopal in central India, being part of the Hindu Rakhi (Festival of Siblings) has become an annual event. "We need to reach out to all people who have negative ideas about us," Archbishop Cornelio, who is based in the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, where the tiny Christian community has been subjected to violent attacks. Christians are often a soft target for hard-line Hindus who believe they seek religious conversions
through charitable works among the poor and marginalized. The "negative perception" among many of Madhya Pradesh's majority Hindus, who form 90 percent of its 71 million people, could only be changed through regular interreligious interactions. As Christians comprise only 0.3 per cent of the population, the Hindu majority most often see them from a distance and do not get a chance to interact. Divine Word Archbishop Cornelio has been working to involve the Christian community in the mainstream of social life ever since he headed Bhopal Archdiocese in 2007. Earlier, when he was bishop of Khandwa in the state in 1999, he had not felt the need to reach out to other religious leaders and people. But he came to realize that Christians have much to gain from such links. With increasing violence against Christians, as head of the archdiocese in the state, he now sought to "lead the community from the front" in terms of interreligious relations. His participation in the Hindu Festival of Siblings was a case in point. During the important Hindu festival, women tie a sacred thread on the wrist of their brothers to symbolize their protection and care. The festival also accepts males who are not biological siblings, but who women and girls consider to be like brothers. The archdiocese celebrated Rakhi to express "oneness" with people around them. "Nobody objects to us celebrating it and no church teaching is against it," Archbishop Cornelio says.
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"In fact, brotherhood and love are part of the Christian ethos." Apart from joining in Hindu festivals such as Rakhi and Diwali, the festival of lights, he also makes the archdiocese part of movements to protect the environment
. Archbishop Cornelio joined a campaign to protect the Narmada River
along with the state's pro-Hindu Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in January. He joined a march of more than 100 people — including Hindu ascetics, activists and political leaders — aiming to create awareness on protecting the river, considered the lifeline of the state. The archdiocese also organized a candle-lit march and public function along with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists on Oct. 2, celebrating the birth anniversary Mahatma Gandhi
the father of the Indian nation who is revered for his belief in non violence or ahimsa
, a resistance strategy that delivered India from colonialism. Archbishop Cornelio also wishes Muslim people well after their festival prayers and visits Muslim religious leaders at their homes on feast days.
A Muslim organization — the All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Social Justice — honored him with its International Human Rights Award in 2015.
He also works to build a good rapport with the state government run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even though some critics consider it to be the political arm of groups wanting to turn India into a Hindu-only nation. His keenness to make his archdiocese part of government environmental and other projects has helped the Christian community gain greater political attention.
Chouhan regularly organizes Christmas carols and a dinner during the Christian festive season for the community and other religious leaders, a unique feature in the state.
Earlier this year, when Latin-rite bishops of India met in the city for their annual gathering, Chouhan addressed them, lauding Archbishop Cornelio's efforts to involve the Christian community in the state's social life. "Some Hindu groups are opposed to our work, but not everyone is against us," Archbishop Cornelio asserts with a sense of optimism. Perceptions would change as Christians got to know people of other faiths, even those who might oppose them, he said. "They will gradually understand us," Archbishop Cornelio said. "That's what I learnt from my experience."