Survey of Churches, anti conversion laws only empower radical mobs: Archbishop Peter Machado

In an exclusive interview to SabrangIndia's Karuna John, Archbishop Peter Machado speaks about the dangerous implications of the proposed survey of Christians and an anti-conversion law

Archbishop Peter Machado

Archbishop Peter Machado of Bengaluru Archdiocese was one of the first Christian leaders to react strongly to Karnataka Backward Classes and Minorities Welfare Department’s survey of “Christian missionaries and places of worship”. Here the Church leader tells us how the survey virtually places a bull’s eye on the backs of Christians in the state, as well as the possible repercussions of the proposed anti-conversion law. 

You are the only one who has spoken out bravely. What is your assessment of the situation in karnataka

It is not very good. We are a peace loving community. By and large even Karnataka is a very peaceful place. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, all the communities are in good harmony with each other. There are some sporadic events because of small groups that create a problem, but at every festiwal, whether it is Diwali, Ramzan or Christmas, people celebrate together. This (problem) is a creation of a small group which is impressing on the Chief Minister to make this anti-conversion bill. What has hurt us more is that, maybe not directly the Chief Minister, but the Backward Classes and Minorities Welfare Department has sent a circular to the police, to take a headcount of all the churches, of all denominations. They have put it as churches which are authorised and churches which are not authorised. The (survey seeks) name of the pastor, the phone number etc. We say this is discriminatory, it is not for all the communities. It looks as if it is targeting us only. Only the Christian community. Secondly we know that if the government wants these details they can have it in any form, in fact the minority department has the list of all our churches. Now [post survey] this list will be in the public domain and can pass on to the smaller groups that will then start harassing those who are “unauthorised”.

What do they mean when they say a church is “unauthorised” or “illegal?

Maybe they mean that full permissions have not been taken for the building, perhaps for meetings. It is not very clear what they have in mind. These groups were against praying in the houses. We Christians, at Christmas, may carry baby Jesus from house to house, the neighbours come together to pray. It is not easy to get permission in Karnataka to get permission to build churches or places of worship. We have to produce 15-20 kinds of certificates, environment certificates, (those from) health, police, fire departments. For the smaller churches, it is not easy to get all these due to the bureaucracy. There are places who apply and after five-six years, the permissions are rejected. 

But house churches are held on private property?

The Karnataka government will not allow it. They will say public gatherers there and add you don’t have fire fighting [equipment or certificate]. They mostly gather only on Sundays or evenings for prayers and singing bhajans devotional songs.

Karnataka may soon get an  anti conversion law, what is the concern of the Christian community?

The Constitution has freedoms and restrains on what we should do and what we cannot do. Article 25 says every citizen has the freedom to proclaim his religion, to preach and even to propagate, but there are limits. There are enough laws in the country, do we need one more law? To punish Christians? If the police were to do [this survey] in all humility I don’t mind, but this will be handed over to groups of people. There is already much noise in Karnataka about moral policing, the police don’t do it but some other groups do it. The police are helpless, they are threatened also. These kinds of laws will fall into the hands of the people who will take advantage of it. Karnataka doesn’t need it [anti conversion law] we are mature people, we have enough understanding. The communities themselves have peace committee meetings, this is not something that the government has to take credit for.

It has been alleged that there are conversions in certain areas, where outfits like Ram Sene are active…

In a place called Hubli, a group went to the church and began singing their own bhajans. Anyone can do anything now…

Are independent churches more vulnerable?

Yes, I feel for them. We [Catholics] at least have systems, we are organised and our churches are authorised, but the smallest churches are not. If the government was to ask me which are the places which are authorised, we will help them to get authorised. I do not want a list for anybody.

Is that how right-wing mobs are empowered?


But the Christian community has itself been silent on protesting attacks on Dalits, and Muslims in Karnataka. Why do you feel that is the case?

The Christian community is peaceful and sometimes pacifist, they don’t speak out loud. ‘Unless I am hurt I won’t speak’ type. I don’t approve. We have formed United Christian Forums at different places and encourage all churches to come together. Though we are seperate on certain issues we are united on many issues. We have the same Bible, the same faith that we proclaim. 

How will you combat the Christian survey and the proposed Bill?

For the Bill, I don’t think we can, because the government has its own majority, its own way of passing the Bills etc. I am a little discouraged in this matter, but I am also trying to contact men of goodwill, even the legislators among the other parties who can speak for us and put some sense into the people. As regards the survey they have not yet come towards the cities, perhaps they are going more towards the villages, we have told them to give whatever information they have. 

Have you seen any survey questionnaires so far?

Unfortunately the police are not yet clear on what is their duty [in this case] they go to the churches and show the ‘form’ on their mobiles, but we told our people it should be in writing, and we will also reply in writing that is the norm. How do we know, the person who has come, is authorised?

Have these concerns been conveyed to the administration?

We are writing to the administration that this is not a good thing, but we do not know who to address it to. There is no clarity. Tomorrow they can deny. Centre can say we cannot say anything, things are hazy. We have established a mechanism by which independent churches can connect with the United Christan Forum offices. The other minorities will also get support if needed. They have targeted us and we will answer, if it is a minority issue we will [tackle] together.

Why is are the anti-Christian targeting so bad now?

In 2008 churches were attacked very badly, that was the time. The present Chief Minister was in the Janata Dal party at that time and he was the one who condemned  all those things. Twelve years on he has forgotten and is indirectly encouraging these things.

How are these radical groups growing so rapidly?

If the government in power encourages, patronises, surely they will grow no? If the government sends a strong message that we are under the Constitution, we have taken oath under the constitution and are responsible to protect all the people, and this [attacks and targeting] can’t be done. 

What is your message to the Karnataka government?

I have met the Chief Minister, he was very courteous and accommodating. I would request the CM to have a little more faith in us. We are citizens of the country and are also bound to the constitution. We will not do anything that goes against the Constitution, secondly if you want to check the list of our churches, take the list of our institutions also. So many of our schools, hospitals, and social services are rendering service to the public, take a list of them and judge them. I have even challenged the government and said that in Bangalore alone we have more than two lakh students in our schools and colleges. Give me one example of a conversion that has taken place there. In the corona times our hospital admitted one thousand patients at one time… They were desperate and dying… any conversions there? I would request the government to have faith in us. Surely we will not betray the government. We are citizens of the country and will work for the country, and anything you want you request us. We are ready to build more hospitals and more social centres. On the religious side, support us. We can do all these services for the public because of our faith. If I don’t believe in God, why will I take interest in the welfare of others? So strong is my faith that my hands serve the people. One official told me it is done for your own benefit so we can help you more. I said I do not want this kind of money. If the survey is done, data is public and groups may target more people and take the law in their own hands. I have written to the CM to withdraw the survey. 

What is your message to the Christian community?

I have told them that persecution is also to strengthen our faith, our bonding with each other and our resolve to do [work for others] despite the difficulties. The blood of the martyrs has always been the seed of new trees. Let us not get discouraged and let us not get too worked up also. These are passing phases. Perhaps the government itself will realise one day that this was a futile exercise. You know there are many Christians who joined the BJP, am sure they will lose confidence now, even Christians who supported the government will next time do a double think, is it safe to bring them back to power or trust them? 



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