Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses through video conferencing the opening of 90th birthday celebrations for Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma, the head of the Kerala-based Mar Thoma Syrian Church. (YouTube screengrab)
In a rare address to a Christian group, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asserted that his government "does not discriminate" between people of different faiths.
Modi was addressing the opening of 90th birthday celebrations for Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma, the head of the Kerala-based Mar Thoma Syrian Church.
Metropolitan Joseph is the 21st head of the church, one of the seven churches in Kerala that trace their faith to St. Thomas, the apostle who according to tradition preached on the southern Indian coast in 52 AD.
"We are guided by the desire to empower 130 crore (1.3 billion) Indians and our guiding light is the constitution of India," Modi said through a video address to Christians.
The prime minister's reference to India's constitution comes amid allegations from religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims that his government undermines secularism and religious freedom enshrined in the constitution.
Modi lauded the Christian contribution to the nation in general, and by the Mar Thoma Church in particular, in one of the rare interactions he has had with religious minorities since he came to power six years ago.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which supports Hindu nationalism, has faced criticism for supporting fanatic violence against Christians and Muslims across India. Christians, particularly in northern India, face violence over accusations of converting Hindus.
Christian leaders say violent incidents have increased since Modi came to power in 2014. In 2016, Persecution Relief documented 330 cases, but they rose to 440 in 2017. The violence continued with 477 incidents in 2018 and 527 in 2019. The first four months of 2020 recorded 213 cases.
Modi said Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma "has devoted his life for the betterment of our society and nation. He has been particularly passionate about removal of poverty and women's empowerment."
"It is with this spirit of humility that the Mar Thoma Church has worked to bring a positive difference in our fellow Indians' lives. They have done so in areas such as healthcare and education," Modi said.
The Mar Thoma Church has fewer activities among tribal and lower-caste people in northern India compared with Catholic and Protestant churches that mostly work outside Kerala.
The prime minister also hailed the Christian community in general. "The contributions of St. Thomas and, following him, the Indian Christian community are deeply valued. With St. Thomas, we associate humility."
He also said the Mar Thoma Church played a role in India's freedom struggle and worked at the forefront for national integration.
Formed as an independent church in 1898, the Mar Thoma Church has some one million followers, mostly in Kerala and among Keralite expatriates in Europe, the United States and Persian Gulf nations.
The Mar Thoma Church was born due to the reformation of the ancient Church caused by education introduced by a British missionary, and its ability to stress local traditions.
Modi said it was "a matter of immense pride that the Mar Thoma Church is firmly rooted in Indian values. The contribution of the Church has also been recognized at the national level."
Modi's speech also mentioned India's fight against Covid-19.
"A global pandemic implies that humanity as a whole needs healing. Let us do everything possible to further harmony and happiness on our planet," he said.The prime minister said India's recovery rate is rising and the death rate per million due to Covid-19 is under 12. While the death rate in Italy is 574 per million, the "figures in America, Britain, Spain and France are also much higher than in India," Modi said.
India crossed the 500,0000 mark in positive Covid-19 cases on June 27, with the record highest spike of 18,552 cases in the last 24 hours. Since June 1, the country has added more than 300,000 cases. India has recorded 15,685 Covid-19 deaths.
However, millions in Indian villages remain almost untouched by the coronavirus in a country of 1.3 billion people, Modi said.