Vatican representatives describe Catholic presence in India as both “growing” and “small”

Like many, if not most, diplomatic states, the Vatican may be tailoring its message to suit its audience, cables accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks show.

In 2002, a Vatican representative told a U.S. diplomat that Catholicism in India was growing. But in 2006, a statement, written in response to a slew of anti-conversion laws in different Indian States and released on an official Church website in India, argued that the Catholic community in India was small and not conversion-oriented.

In a July 24, 2002 meeting, Archbishop Antonio Veglio, Secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, told the U.S. Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, George Frowick, that of the 22 non-Roman Christian Rites in his charge, the vast majority faced threats to their stability. Only two — the Greek Rite Church in Ukraine and Keralite Catholic churches in India — appeared to be secure, according to an account of what the Archbishop said, as provided in the cable (3387: confidential, dated July 26, 2002).

“The Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches are reputed to have a 2,000-year presence in Southern India,” the cable states. According to Archbishop Veglio, these churches originated “from the visit of Saint Tomas the Apostle.”

Unlike their counterparts in “the Middle East,” “Ethiopia/Eritrea,” and “formerly communist Europe” excluding the Greek Rite Church in Ukraine, “the Indian Eastern Catholic Churches centered on the state of Kerala” are described in the cable as ‘“lively' and ‘growing'.”

Characterised as “islands of growth,” the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Eastern Rite Churches were described by Archbishop Veglio as “vigorous and growing, despite hindrances.” The hindrances included anti-conversion bills such as those backed by the Hindu nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the cable says.

Monsignor Francis Chullikatt, “a Kerala native heading off to become the papal nuncio in Baghdad,” termed such legislation “poorly conceived.” He emphasised “the need to preserve religious freedom in India,” “noting at the same time that the Catholic Church should be distinguished from various evangelical groups in India.” He claimed that such groups did not “respect traditional Indian culture in the way the Church does” (65975: confidential, dated May 31, 2006).

Anti-conversion bills

Cardinal Ivan Dias wrote protesting against a rash of anti-conversion bills being introduced in Indian States. His statement, of May 23, 2006, was released on the official website of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

Just three days earlier, on May 20, Cardinal Dias was appointed to “a senior position in Rome,” to serve as the “head of the Congregation for Evangelization,” according to the cable.

Monsignor Bernardito Auza, point man for South Asia in the Holy See's Secretariat of State, said that Cardinal Dias's appointment “coincided” with the anti-conversion excitement in India “purely by accident,” the cable says.

The statement was written on Cardinal Dias's “own initiative,” and not “coordinated with Rome,” according to Monsignor Auza, the cable says. However, it “accurately reflected the Vatican's views.”

“Christians are responsible for large shares of primary education, community health care, and literacy programs throughout India,” Cardinal Dias wrote, according to the cable. “A great many Indians of all faiths value and patronize these highly-regarded Catholic institutions, but are never asked to convert.”

“No forced conversion by the Catholic Church in India has ever been documented, despite various allegations,” the cable quotes Cardinal Dias as saying in his statement. Thus, “Christians in India are only 2.3 percent of the total population, and of these 1.8 percent are Catholics,” Cardinal Dias claimed, according to the cable.

“After two millenia the Indian Christian community remains small,” the cable quotes Cardinal Dias's statement as saying, contrasting with Archbishop Veglio's earlier declarations of growth.

“These churches are thriving even as Christians suffer persecution in Hindu-Nationalist parts of India,” Archbishop Veglio told Mr. Frowick in 2002 (3387: confidential, dated July 26, 2002).

Commenting on the situation, U.S. State Department Charge d'Affaires Christopher Sandrolini and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See L. Francis Rooney III, said that “the Church — both in Rome and elsewhere — will increasingly shed its traditional preference for quiet diplomacy when it comes to issues it deems vital for its own survival, particularly religious freedom” (65975: confidential, dated May 31, 2006).

According to the cable, Mr. Sandrolini and Mr. Rooney “judge that the Holy See and the Church in India and elsewhere will not back down on issues it sees as fundamental to religious freedom, and to its security and survival.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)