“The circumstances are difficult for the Christians in our diocese – we often come up against restrictions in the practice of our faith,” Dr Stephen Antony explained. The 67-year-old bishop of the diocese of Tuticorin in southern India and 53 other Indian bishops recently met with Pope Francis during an ad limina visit to Rome. He then went on to visit the international headquarters of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
According to the bishop, the government is working to transform the primarily Hindu country into a homogenous country with one language and one set of policies. A difficult to impossible undertaking in a heterogenous country with 29 federal states and the second most populous country in the world at 1.37 billion inhabitants. Some forecasts even predict that India may already overtake top-ranking China next year. The situation has worsened after this year’s parliamentary elections, which the nationalist governing party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi won with a surprising majority. “Our situation at the moment isn’t very encouraging. The government makes a lot of rash decisions, which makes things unpredictable. Politics only benefits the wealthy part of the population. The poor are left with nothing,” Bishop Antony deplored.
The bishop explained that about 450,000 Catholics live in the diocese of Tuticorin, which is equivalent to about 17 per cent of the population. Besides the attacks targeting the faithful and groups of pilgrims, he reported that the circumstances were becoming more and more difficult in his diocese, particularly for the hospitals and the more than 200 schools operated by the church. According to the bishop, high unemployment is a problem not only affecting teachers, but the lack of support from the government has led many of the small farmers and factory workers to feel its effects as well. In fact, Bishop Antony said, many people in the region were so desperate that they felt that suicide was the only option left open to them.
However, he does believe that there are signs of hope, one of which being the visit to Pope Francis in Rome. “We are not going to give up the fight for equality, justice and fraternity,” said Stephen Antony. “We hope that Hindus and Christians will soon become more tolerant of each other and that the readiness to use violence will decline throughout the country. I am deeply grateful to ACN and all the benefactors who help us meet our needs in all areas of pastoral care and accompany us in their prayers.”