Indian faith leaders band together to condemn exploitation of religion

(Photo: REUTERS / Rupak De Chowdhuri)Catholic nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the global order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa, take part in a mass service to mark the 104th birth anniversary of Mother Teresa in Kolkata August 26, 2014. Teresa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in 1997, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003 at the Vatican.

Leaders of India's Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Sikh communities have come together and condemned the use of religion to disrupt dialogue and social harmony.

Leaders of six major religions in India came together on the first weekend of April and called for an end to branding people as patriotic or unpatriotic based on religion, region or community, Vatican News reported.

They further denounced in unequivocal terms the attacks this week on three Catholic churches in Rourkela, Odisha "at a time when the peaceful Christian community was celebrating their feast of joy – Easter," The Times of India reported.

Their call came at a time when Hindu extremists in India face accusations of continuous and increasing attempts to exploit religious sentiments for political gains.

The leaders gathered on April 5 in, Margao in the western state of Goa to express their dismay at communal tension building in states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Odisha, ahead of crucial elections.

"We strongly object to anyone taking control of individual decisions. No one is to be categorized as anti-national or non-patriotic based on his religion, region or community," said a joint statement issued at the end of a meeting,

It was titled "Collective Action for Dialogue and Social Harmony" and was sponsored by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), in collaboration with the Agnel Region of the Society of Pilar and Bharatiya Sarva Dharma Sansad and others in Goa.

The faith leaders singled out the attacks the previous week on three Catholic churches in Rourkela, in the eastern state of Odisha.

The statement said that "every Indian has his dignity and respect and the night to decide what one eats, to marry the person of one's choice, to choose the education one selects and the freedom to practice whatever faith one wishes to profess."

This alluded to pro-Hindu groups imposing restrictions on Christians, Muslims and socially poor Dalit groups.

"We take strong exception to anyone taking control of these individual decisions be it on the part of the state or by so-called cultural organizations," they said.

"We vehemently denounce mobs that go around taking law and order into their hands and appeal that the Constitutional norms and articles be respected and implemented in letter and spirit. Dalits be given their rightful place in society," they said.

The faith leaders also demanded that the "rights of the tribals, the marginalized, the workers and the poor be upheld and protected."

India is preparing for general elections in April 2019 as reports emerge of religion-based tensions in the crucial states of West Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan.

Local reports suggest tensions are politically engineered to divide people on the lines of religion and caste as rival political parties project themselves as champions of sectarian interests.

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