Anil Joseph Thomas Couto, Archbishop of Delhi, in an interview to G Sreedathan, talks about issues such as attacks on churches, Ghar Wapsi and conversions. Edited excerpts
Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the Christian community when he said his government was committed to secularism. The community was upset with a spate of attacks on churches in Delhi and the perceived silence of the government over the Ghar Wapsi programme of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Do you now feel reassured or do you still view the government with suspicion?
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi having made a strong statement on February 17 at an event to celebrate canonisation of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia is quite reassuring, given the fact that he was silent for some time. We welcome the prime minister's statement that all citizens have the right to preach and propagate their religion. Not only minority communities but even the majority community was expecting him to speak up, especially in the wake of a disturbing turn of events such as attacks on churches, resurrection of Ghar Wapsi programme and utterances of some of his colleagues. His senior colleague Sushma Swaraj said the Gita should be made a national holy book above the Constitution, directly in line with the Hindutva ideology, which believes that followers of all other religions (other than Hindus) are second class citizens. There was a sense of insecurity not only among Christians but among Muslims as well. These attacks (on churches) were interpreted in that perspective. Now that the government has spoken through the prime minister, we are happy.
After PM made the statement, VHP has come out with its interpretation, saying it is a sermon for the church against conversion. How do you view this?
The VHP is misinterpreting PM's words. He was addressing all Indians - the majority and the minorities alike. He talked about the citizen's right to preach, propagate and practise a religion of his choice. He did not give any sermon or talk about conversion. To look it that way is misconstruing his statement. He was simply reminding the country about the guiding principles of the Constitution. We take it that way.
Do you think PM should do more than just speak mere words? What are your other demands?
Certainly, these assurances have to be followed up with action. The government should make sure that all citizens, irrespective of the majority or the minority, feel secure for peace and harmony. Not only on this, but on his other promises such as black money, employment, etc., the government should deliver.
You had earlier said there was a pattern in attacks on churches.
To me, it looked like there was a pattern to these incidents. There were six such incidents. Interiors of St Sebastian Church at Dilshad Garden were gutted in a fire in December. Stones were thrown at a Syro-Malabar Catholic Church at Jasola in Okhla when mass was going on around 6.45 pm. Window panes of the church were broken. In January, a Christmas crib outside our Rohini church was charred. A church in West Delhi's Vikas Puri was vandalised by two men. St. Alphonsa's Church in Vasant Kunj was vandalised on February 1. Then there was theft at the Holy Child Auxilium School at Vasant Vihar.
Do you suspect the role of the Sangh Parivar organisations behind these attacks?
I didn't name any political party or organisation. How can I blame someone when I don't know the truth? It is the media reports that gave a suggestion to the effect that some organisations might be behind this. It is for the police to do a thorough investigation and book the culprit.
The police claim contradicts this narrative. They say the fire incident was an accident. Also, there were incidents of vandalism of temples, mosques and gurudwaras. Do you think police didn't act promptly?
The Dilshad Garden incident was a deliberate case of arson. The police came to the site late and did not do a proper investigation. I condemn the attacks on temples. If there is a pattern in attacks against churches, temples and other religious places, that means there is a deliberate attempt to vitiate communal harmony. A comprehensive investigation should be done and culprits be brought to book.
You have said there is no need for an anti-conversion law. Why ?
An anti-conversion law at the national level will create fissures in the society. This will amount to suppression of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of an individual. If such a law is enacted, a lot of negative energy will be let loose. If force or allurement is used, there are laws to deal with them. Religion is a matter of choice and it should not be a matter that the police should be handling.
The Sangh Parivar says if there is conversion, then there will be reconversion also. So what is wrong with Ghar Wapsi? Do you think Ghar Wapsi is a threat to minorities?
I have a problem with the word Ghar Wapsi. It means Hinduism is the only ghar and others are not. This means there are two yardsticks. The word sends a message, which we do not approve of. But I don't think such programmes are a threat to minorities, as it is made up to be.
Critics say the church has also launched massive campaigns like 'Harvesting of Souls' supported by huge funds. This scares followers of other religions.
Yes, I can understand that names of such programmes can be misconceived. There are missions taken up by the church for specific purposes, such as charitable, educational, health programmes for the development of our nation.
An RSS ideologue has said he doesn't have a problem with Lord Jesus Christ and is ready to accept him as a god in the Hindu pantheon. According to him, massive evangelisation is the cause of discord.
Many Hindus come to church and take part in masses. If proselytisation clashes with law then it should be dealt with firmly. Also, if some sectarian churches are indulging in activities that create social discord, I condemn such activities.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has started on a high note. What do you expect from him?
We are very happy that he got such a big mandate. The speech he made at the swearing-in gives an impression that he is ready to take all sections along. He has a message of humility. He is simple and accessible.