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Interreligious marriages a major challenge in South Asia church

Lack of pastoral guidelines exacerbates problems in region
Interreligious marriages a major challenge in South Asia church

Rituals are performed during a traditional Hindu marriage ceremony in Viramgam, near Ahmedabad in India. Interreligious marriages are posing a challenge to Catholics in many South Asian countries. (Photo by Sam Panthakky/AFP)

Published: September 30, 2015 07:41 AM GMT
Updated: September 30, 2015 12:39 AM GMT

The 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will be taking place Oct. 4–25 at the Vatican. More than 360 participants, including 18 married couples from around the world, are expected to attend and discuss "the vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the contemporary world." In a series of features, ucanews.com explores the pastoral problems and challenges of contemporary families throughout the regions we cover. Today’s feature examines interreligious families in South Asia.

Increasing interreligious marriages in South Asia and the pastoral challenges this brings should be a point of discussion for the upcoming synod on families, say church leaders.

"More and more of our boys and girls study and work with non-Christians, develop relationships and decide to get married," says Father Mintu Lawrence Palma, convener of the Family Commission in Dhaka Archdiocese.

The situation in Father Palma's Muslim-majority Bangladesh exists also in Hindu-dominated India, Islamic Pakistan and mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka. Catholics in the region constitute a tiny minority — just 1.5 percent of 1.6 billion people in the region.

"We don’t encourage or discourage interreligious marriages," Father Palma said, while Father Stephan Alathara, deputy secretary-general of India's Latin rite bishops' conference, pointed out that this is because of internal migration, jobs, and academic needs forcing thousands of young Catholics to move out from their villages and families to live and work in more urban communities where religion is not a factor.

Mumbai-based Astird Lobo Gajiwala, a Catholic who married a Hindu some 25 years ago, says the real challenge in interreligious marriages comes when the non-Christian partner retains his or her faith and children are not baptized.

In such situations, "Catholics stand on the margins of our faith communities with their non-baptized families and invalid marriages and are made to feel unwelcome by bishops, priests and people," Gajiwala said.

Church leaders such as Father Joseph Chinnayan, deputy secretary-general of the national bishops' conference in India, while claiming that interreligious marriages are more common in cities and towns, pointed out that, "Quite often we don't see faith-based family life in such marriages" because parents "fail in bringing up their children in sacramental life, within a faith community."

Moreover, "the difference of faith of the partners also affects their family life," said the priest.

A Pakistani laborer hangs wedding fabrics to dry in Lahore. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)

A rising trend, a major challenge

In Bangladesh, interreligious marriages among Catholics, currently at 10 to 12 percent, are a rising trend and "a major challenge" for the church, said Father Palma.

Similarly, Father Alathara pointed out that the church in India does not have any definite numbers of interreligious marriages but "we know from pastoral experience" that the numbers are going up.

Increasing interreligious marriages are a concern for the church in Pakistan, said Bishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, head of the national bishops' conference and the only delegate to the synod from Pakistan.

Interreligious marriages between Catholic women and Muslims are increasing and understandable as Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, he said.

However, "I am sorry to say that most of them are not happy marriages," he said, pointing out that in almost all cases, Catholic women who marry Muslims will have to follow the Islamic faith, despite "all kinds of commitments and promises" made during marriage.

"A Muslim woman marrying a Christian man is simply impossible and if it happens, the couple has to live in hiding forever. For a Muslim, it is quite legal to have a second wife. So there can be another problem, if a Muslim man opts for a second marriage after marrying a Christian girl," he said.

The trend is highest in mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka. More than 70 percent of marriages taking place in Galle Diocese, for example, are between Buddhists and Catholics, said Father Stephen Perera, diocesan director of Family Apostolate. "The divorce rate is also over 60 percent among interreligious marriages," he said.

"Interreligious marriages have serious problems and create crisis between the couple and their parents," because elderly Buddhists believe that marrying someone from another religion is akin to leaving their heritage and family traditions, he said.

Indian Father Chinnayan believes the upcoming synod may offer some concrete pastoral guidelines to help pastors across the region, while Father Palma agrees that the church does not have "any pastoral approach in place to provide motivation and assistance" to interreligious families that face trouble.


'The church threw me out'

Sanju Thomas, a Catholic who married her Hindu boyfriend some 15 years ago and who now lives in New Delhi, said her marriage was not solemnized in the church and her parents had to tender an apology to the parish priest for her decision to marry.

"I never sought for, nor received any sacrament" after marriage because "I never felt the need of it," she told ucanews.com. Sanju, a mother of two, said her "faith is not via the church" and believes in a dichotomy between spirituality and church rules.

"It is not that I moved out from the church. The church threw me out," she said, adding she "just did not bother" to find out what the laws of the church were when she decided to marry her Hindu husband.

The church considers that the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Christian is invalid in the eyes of the church, if done without obtaining a dispensation from the local bishop, said Father Chinnayan, former president of the Canon Law Society of India.

The dispensation is given on condition that the non-Christian party will not object to the faith of the Catholic party and that their children would be brought up in the Catholic faith. Even with dispensation, the marriage should be conducted without solemnity and without a Mass, according to law, he said.

Even if Catholics marry outside the church, they are not denied sacraments or excommunicated, said Father Arthur Charles, former vicar-general of Karachi Archdiocese.

"As long as they don't renounce their faith and continue a Catholic life, they are not denied Communion and their children are also baptized," said the priest from Pakistan.

However, more than theories and laws, "the church needs to learn from the lives of such families what their problems are and what they want from the church," said Gajiwala, a leading theologian and medical doctor who contributes regularly to Catholic periodicals.

"The question is this: Do you want to accept interreligious marriages or do you want to prevent them," she asked, adding that if the church accepts this as a reality that will continue, "it has to revise its theology."

"The theology of matrimony, and the whole theology of sacraments have to be revised to make the church open to the reality of interreligious marriages," she said.

Reporting from Stephan Uttom in Dhaka, Quintus Colombage in Colombo, Zahid Hussain in Karachi and Christopher Joseph in Kochi. 

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