(Photo: CROSS/The Christian Post)
Around 15,000 Christians walked, many barefoot, for six hours in the streets of Mumbai, India, on Good Friday enacting Jesus’ walk to the Cross and condemning growing attacks on the minority community.
This 24th Annual Lenten Walking Pilgrimage was held especially to give hope to and express solidarity with the persecuted Christians, the event’s chief organizer Joseph Dias told The Christian Post.
The gathering comprised of Christians from evangelical as well as mainline Protestant churches “apart from the Catholics, who formed the majority,” said Dias, who leads the organization behind the rally, Christian Revival Oriented Social Service.
“The mammoth serpentine procession of devotees wended its way through the city fasting and praying, some walking bare-foot and thereby embracing pain, to commemorate the first and final walk Jesus undertook over 2000 years ago,” said Fatima Corriea, the media assistant of CROSS.
Dias said around 10,000 Christians joined the march as it began from Sacred Heart Church in Khar in the suburb of Mumbai, India’s financial capital and the base of India’s film industry Bollywood, at 10.30 a.m. (local time). “Christians kept joining along the way and the numbers swelled to around 15,000 at the end.”
The Christians marched acting out the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and finally His passion at the cross. “The likes of such a penance which normally happens in the Philippines or Latin America, came alive as the Passion Play of Christ was dramatized.”
“However, no one inflicted pain on their bodies; they just fasted and walked barefoot,” Dias clarified. The objective was to highlight the “increasing and continued attacks on Christians, including their organizations, institutions, property and businesses, and especially the plight of women and children who suffer more than the direct victims in the aftermath of persecution.”
Dias, who also heads the Catholic Secular Forum, a group which fights Christian persecution in India, pointed out that the incidence of anti-Christian violence was high mainly in the states of Karnataka, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, whose capital is Mumbai.
In these states, Christians also face false charges under anti-conversion legislation and other laws, Dias complained. Freedom of religion acts, known as anti-conversion laws, are in force in five Indian states. Vaguely defined, some of these laws require prior permission from authorities for any religious conversion.
Christians, around 2.3 percent of the country’s population of over 1.2 billion, came under attack after the Rightwing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party won the 1998 general election. The attacks were part of a BJP’s strategy to compel the people to vote along communal lines and thereby gain an edge over the Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress, which has traditionally seen religious minorities as their vote-bank.
Although the BJP lost the following elections in 2004 and 2009, Christians do not seem too happy with the Congress party either. The Good Friday rally was also to protest the ruling government’s “apathy” towards Dalit Christians, Dias said.
The Indian constitution gives affirmative action rights to the millions of people who are “low caste” as per the caste hierarchy in the Hindu society. However, if a Dalit converts to Christianity or Islam, she or he loses those rights.
India has over 17 million Dalit Christians and they have been demanding restoration of their rights, but the incumbent government led by the Congress party remains non-committal.
Dias also pointed out that a Dutch missionary, Father Jim Borst, had been asked to leave India, “after almost 50 years of selfless service” in Indian Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region. He added that southern and north-eastern parts of the country which had been peaceful vis-à-vis Christian persecution until recent years had also become hostile to the Christian minority.
Since 2008, India has witnessed between 100 and 200 attacks on Christians, including rape, arson, murders and mass killings, every year.
But the persecution needed to be fought prayerfully and peacefully in line with the spirit of the Lenten season, Dias stressed. “Our rally offers thousands of Christians, who partake in the procession, an opportunity to deny one’s self of daily comforts and do penance on an auspicious day.”