AGRA, India The head of a Hindu nationalist party that embraces the prime minister among its members is calling for the banning of foreign churches and the creation of a national Christian church such as exists in China.
At a huge rally this week in Agra, the city where the Taj Majal is located, RSS leader Kuppahalli Sitharamaiya Sudarshan appealed to patriotic Indian Christians to “free themselves from the stranglehold of foreign countries by setting up Indian nationalistic churches.”
India should follow the example of China by establishing a national church and ban foreign churches, continued Mr. Sudarshan, head of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Organization.
The 75-year-old party, with 4.5 million active members in India and more than 100 affiliate bodies, is an important part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Mr. Vajpayee, while distancing himself from the group’s most extreme positions, remains a member of the party, as does the internal affairs minister, Lal Krishen Advani.
More than 75,000 Hindu volunteers turned out in Agra in khaki shorts and white shirts for the three-day weekend rally, the largest in the history of the RSS.
“Foreign churches and their missionaries have wreaked havoc with India’s unity and integrity they have a conspiracy to destabilize the whole nation,” said Mr. Sudarshan.
Elaborating a day later in New Delhi, Mr. Sudarshan charged that the United States denied the use of Indian military bases during the Cold War and used the church to gain access to strategically important northeast India, where most of India’s Christians are concentrated.
The region has seen a wave of violence against Christians, who comprise less than 2.5 percent of India’s population. A few days ago four churches were destroyed by fire in eastern Bihar state.
Mr. Sudarshan, warning in New Delhi that the West could use the church to guide Christians into political action, argued that an “indigenized” Indian church was essential for India’s national security.
“You have the blood of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna in your veins,” he told Muslims and Christians, urging them to join the country’s cultural “mainstream” by accepting their Hindu ancestry.
Christian leaders reacted angrily to the outburst, denouncing Mr. Sudarshan’s remarks as “patently absurd” and “totally unreasonable.”
The establishment of a national church would “be a violation of [India’s] constitution and destroy the concepts of secular India,” said the Rev. Dominic Emanuel, a spokesman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
“The Indian church is 1,948 years old obviously we are Indian,” said Father Emanuel. “Each one of the 145 Catholic dioceses in India is under an Indian bishop. Our worship is all in Indian languages and we abide by Indian hours of worship.”
Archbishop Oswald Gracias, secretary-general of the bishops’ conference, said in a statement that Mr. Sudarshan “has challenged not only constitutional guarantees of freedom of faith, but sought to interfere directly in the internal structures of several religions including Christianity.”
Despite their anger, few Christian leaders believe that Mr. Vajpayee will do anything to muzzle the RSS and other pro-Hindu groups, which form an important part of his political base.
“The church holds that the government is not directly involved in the violence against Christians in India, but the BJP is a Hindu nationalist party so how much help can we really ask from them?” asked Amrose Pinto, a Christian priest and the director of the Social Science Institute in New Delhi.
The U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch has accused the government of failing to prevent violence against Christians and of exploiting sectarian tensions for political ends. It has claimed in the past that attacks against Christians have increased significantly since the BJP came to power in 1998.
The Indian parliament has recorded more than 100 cases of anti-Christian violence including the killing of priests, the raping of nuns, and the destruction of churches, schools and cemeteries
U.S. Ambassador Richard Celeste was assured during a recent meeting with the president of the BJP that the party and the government were committed to ensuring religious freedom for Christians.
“But the truth of the matter is that Christians here in India feel more unsafe every day,” Father Emanuel said. “While I may just feel psychologically unsafe, my brothers in the remote villages fear for their lives.”
Janaki Kremmer contributed to this report in New Delhi.