Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Begins With India's 'Untouchables' In Mind

Christian denominations around the world began celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on Friday by asking the question, "What does God require of us?"

The question, inspired by Micah 6:6-8, is the theme of this year's event, which will continue through Jan. 25, though prayers for unity are encouraged year-round by its organizers. The event is put on by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Commission on Faith and Order for the World Council of Churches (WCC), a worldwide fellowship of 349 Protestant and Orthodox church denominations.

The original draft of the material provided for the Week of Prayer this year was prepared by the Student Christian Movement of India (SCMI), a 10,000 member organization which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012, in consultation with the National Council of Churches in India and the All India Catholic University Federation.

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The theme of this year's prayer week was inspired in part by India's caste system and the divisions it causes in the nation's society at large and its churches. The Dalits – sometimes labeled "untouchables" – are considered the lowest class of people in the nation, and are faced with significant social, political, and economic challenges as a result. According to the Week of Prayer brochure, nearly 80 percent of all Indian Christians are from a Dalit background.

"Despite outstanding progress in the twentieth century, the churches in India remain divided along the doctrinal divisions inherited from Europe and elsewhere," the document states. "Christian disunity in India within churches and between them is further accentuated by the caste system. Casteism, like apartheid, racism and nationalism poses severe challenges for the unity of Christians in India and therefore, for the moral and ecclesial witness of the Church as the one body of Christ."

The situation in modern-day India is similar to the one faced by God's people in the book of Micah, the resource brochure suggests. The prophet spoke in favor of justice for the poor and oppressed, it says, and today's Christians should also see the pursuit of justice as an integral part of their faith.

Carlos Malavé , executive director of Christian Churches Together in the USA, told The Christian Post on Friday that the Week of Prayer is important because most churches are unaware of the work of reconciliation happening among Christians today. Culture and society, he also says, will face many difficulties if people do not find common ground.

"We need to put our eyes into common denominators. That should be the starting point – seeking and looking into what identifies me with these other groups. And from there we can move forward into getting a deeper appreciation of the differences, or at least understanding the other differences," said Malavé .

Though churches and individuals are often faced with doctrinal, moral and ethical differences, Malavé says it's important for Christians to avoid becoming isolated from one another.

"We need to move away from exclusivism," he said. "I think it's becoming a thing in our society, from the point of view that I can survive by myself and I don't need the others. And I think that the Week of Christian Unity addresses that by saying, 'We need each other.' There is no place for exclusivism in the Christian faith."

Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the PCPCU, recently told Vatican Radio that finding unity between churches is important, even if it seems to be just an illusion to some.

"Yes, that's the mind of post modernism and relativism that many people don't want unity, they want pluralism and relativism and tolerance is very important for people today," said Koch. "But for the Bible and Christian tradition, unity – one faith – is very important. Christian faith without the search for unity is not Christian faith."

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