Archbishop Anil Couto, pictured here with Pope Francis at the Vatican in June 2013, has upset India's government. (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)
Archbishop Anil Couto of New Delhi has sparked a political controversy after Hindu groups accused him of undermining Indian interests and working with the Vatican to tarnish the government's image.
The prelate launched a year-long prayer campaign May 13 saying India faces a "turbulent political future" that threatens the country's democracy. He asked Catholics in the capital to have special prayers and fast on all Fridays until national elections due in April next year.
Hindu groups reacted angrily and said the archbishop's statement was politically motivated.
Leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the prayer campaign was designed to turn Catholic voters against his party, which is seen as working to make India a nation of Hindu dominance.
BJP spokesman Sambit Patra told some Christian leaders in a television debate that by "raking up these issues [of discrimination against Christians] you are crucifying the truth about India."
Rakesh Sinha, an ideologue from influential Hindu group Rashtryia Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said: "This is a direct attack by the church on Indian secularism and democracy, and this is a direct intervention by the Vatican as these bishops are appointed by the pope. Their accountability is not to India but to the pope."
He told the TV debate that the prayer appeal was "only a part of activities of Vatican design to project the Modi government in a poor light."
Sinha said the church's dwindling funds from overseas were the reason behind its opposition to the government. Before Modi came to power in May 2014, "there was an easy flow of money from overseas and church-affiliated bodies received money for varied reasons but used most of it for religious conversions."
"They [Christians] want a government to be made so that their conversion business flourishes," Sinha told ANI news channel. "Missionaries meddling in politics are giving a bad name to Indian Christians."
RSS works as the umbrella organization and mentor of Hindu groups that want to make India a Hindu-only nation. Its members are accused of violently opposing Christian missioners and conversion activities.
Shaina N.C., another BJP spokesperson, told ucanews.com that Archbishop Couto was not being fair in making such remarks against the government.
He said the archbishop and other Christian leaders need to be told that ever since the Modi government came to power, there has not been a single incident of rioting or anti-Christian or even anti-Muslim violence in the country.
Published data shows Shaina's claims are incorrect. According to Christian groups, attacks against Christians rose after Modi came to power and have spiralled in recent years.
There were 736 attacks recorded against Christians in 2017 against 348 in 2016, according to data from Persecution Relief, an ecumenical forum that records Christian persecution in India and helps victims.
Amid reports of increasing attacks against Christians, Modi himself in February 2015 told a Christian conference in New Delhi that his government would act against such crimes.
Delhi Archdiocesan spokesman Father Savarimuthu Sankar said the "prayers are part of Christian life and it has nothing to do with politics."
The archbishop "of course mentioned the background" for which he sought the prayers. "Media reports are enough to understand how violently people were attacked" in the name of religion-related issues, he said.
Father Sankar said the angry reactions linking the prayer campaign with the Vatican and money "means that either they are afraid of our prayers or they are promoted by their own guilt."