ucanews.com reporters, DelhiUpdated: April 24, 2015 01:58 PM GMT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) lights a traditional Indian lamp before addressing a gathering of Christians on Tuesday in Delhi (Photo by John Mathew)
Prime Minster Narendra Modi on Tuesday told a gathering of Christians that his government would ensure religious freedom, amid increasing criticism that his administration was apathetic toward recent anti-Christian attacks across the country.
Modi was speaking as the chief guest at a national seminar on "Religious Witnessing” organized by a group of Catholics to mark the recent canonization of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia.
"We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.," Modi told some 1,200 Christians including Cardinal George Alencherry.
Modi said his government would ensure that there was complete "freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice”.
However, Modi did not specifically mention attacks on Christian churches and institutions, which Christian leaders say have increased since his right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power last May.
Christian clergy say that thousands of their parishioners have faced threats in recent months from hardline groups agitating to make India a Hindu-only nation. Hindu groups have also intensified their campaign to forcefully re-convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, they say.
However, Modi sought to reassure Christians on Tuesday.
"My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly," said Modi. "Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions.”
Modi went on to appeal to all religious groups "to act with restraint, mutual respect and tolerance" to safeguard the religious rights of all.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, a key advisor in Modi's current administration, also used strong words to condemn violence against Christians and a series of attacks on churches.
“Some recent instances should be regarded as unacceptable aberrations in a society as liberal as India,” he said, addressing the gathering.
“I’m quite certain that those mischief makers who indulge in incidents of this kind would have no space in India," Jaitly said.
Modi has come under fire for failing to publically condemn several recent attacks on minorities despite bishops and Christian leaders seeking his intervention on several occasions.
The lack of a public statement had caused concern among Christian leaders.
Modi's invitation to the event also turned controversial as some media reported that two sections of the Catholic Church in India — the Latin rite and Syro-Malankara rite — had opted not to be part of the function.
But Church officials denied such reports and said the program was organized by the Syro-Malabar Church to celebrate the canonization of the two saints, who are from that rite.
"It is true that other churches were not part of organizing it. But all participated in it," said Delhi archdiocese spokesman Father Dominic Emmanuel.
"Modi accepting the invitation shows that he is not prejudiced against Christians. But his silence thus far has been intriguing," Father Emmanuel said.
Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad, chief organizer of the Tuesday event, told ucanews.com that the seminar offered an opportunity for Modi to "connect with Christians" and "end his silence".
Father Savarimuthu Sankar, spokesman for Delhi's Archbishop Anil Couto, welcomed the prime minister's comments but indicated they were long overdue.
"We are very happy that he has finally spoken. We particularly welcome his comments on the issue of religious conversions and freedom to practice any religion of choice," Sankar told AFP.
"I won't say (the comments) are timely. We expected him to speak before Christmas when the big attack on the church happened,” he said. "But we are glad that today he made amply clear that his government will not tolerate violence against any religion."
Additional reporting by AFP