Bangalore, India, Aug 9, 2023 / 12:35 pm (CNA).
A Catholic priest in the Indian state of Goa was granted “anticipatory bail” Aug. 8 after police registered a criminal case against him for allegedly “hurting Hindu sentiments” in remarks he made about a Hindu king during a Sunday Mass in July.
Hindu groups had staged demonstrations in front of the police station calling for criminal charges to be brought against Father Bolmax Pereira, parish priest of St. Francis Xavier Church in Chicalim in the Archdiocese of Goa.
Pereira was quoted in the Mass posted on YouTube saying that 17th-century Hindu king Chatrapati Shivaji “was a national hero but not a god.”
“There are a few people for whom Shivaji has become a god … Yes, he is a national hero. We have to honor and respect him. What he has done, the battles he fought to protect his people … for all that he deserves respect. He is a hero, but not a god. … We have to have a dialogue with our Hindu brethren and ask them ‘Is Shivaji your God? Or a national hero?’ If he is a national hero, let it be at that. Don’t make him a god. We need to understand their perspective. If we live in fear, we will not be able to rise again,” the Indian Express quoted Pereira’s homily Aug. 5 after police filed a criminal case against him.
Hindu nationalist groups had shared the Catholic priest’s remarks on social media and carried out demonstrations demanding his arrest for offending their “religious sentiments.”
The police submitted in the trial court on Aug. 8 that “Father Bolmax Pereira is not required in custody in connection with the [case] registered against him in the Shivaji Maharaj [great king] row.”
Following this police response, the court accepted the priest’s plea for “anticipatory bail” in the case against him. As many as four cases related to the same incident have been registered against Pereira in four different police stations in Goa.
Goa, the tiny former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, was evangelized by St. Francis Xavier, whose mortal remains are preserved in the Bom Jesus Cathedral. The number of Christians — most of whom are Catholic — has been steadily declining and now comprise a quarter of the state’s 1.6 million population. The state has been ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for more than a decade.
“Anticipatory bail” in the Indian legal system allows the accused to be released from police custody even if arrested for an alleged crime. In Pereira’s case, the court ruled that in the event he is arrested for the crime, he is to be released on a bond of 20,000 rupees ($240) and a surety.
Since the matter was “sub judice” (under consideration by the court and therefore prohibited from public discussion elsewhere), the priest declined to respond to CNA, though in an Aug. 4 statement he expressed “regret over the controversy and misunderstanding” surrounding his remark about Shivaji.
“The purpose and intent of making a mention of the great national hero and valiant warrior during the sermon was to tell devotees and viewers that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was revered by people across the country and abroad cutting across religions, castes, creed, languages,” his statement read, as reported by India Today TV.
“Hence, attributing him [Shivaji Maharaj] to only one religion would reduce his stature and greatness among the people of other faiths,” he said.
The report also quoted the priest as saying that he was “shocked” to learn that his sermon was “selectively taken out of context” to show only one part of the statement while the other part praising Shivaji Maharaj’s valor and heroism as he protected his people and kingdom and stood against invaders, was “maliciously omitted.” The omission of the part of his remarks was “aimed at inciting anger and creating enmity between communities.”
“We are relieved and happy that the police and the judiciary have taken note of the flimsiness of the allegation made against Father Bolmax,” outspoken human rights activist Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash told CNA Aug. 9 from Gujarat state.
“This incident shows how Hindu nationalists do not miss even the mildest of opportunities to denigrate and demonize Christians,” Prakash pointed out.
“What Father Bolmax said is a publicly accepted fact. Historically, Shivaji is indeed a great king. But nobody with a secular view would accept that he is a god,” he continued.
“This is a clear example of how Hindu fundamentalists latch on to any opportunity to polarize the society on communal [religious] lines. Missionaries of Charity nuns in my home state [Gujarat] are still undergoing trial after being charged with ‘forced conversion’ for keeping Bibles in homes for destitute girls,” Prakash lamented.
“This [controversy] is nothing surprising and reflects the intolerance against religious minorities in the country,” Ram Puniyani, a Hindu scholar from Mumbai and a critic of rampant Hindu fundamentalism, told CNA.
“Hindu nationalists have a different logic for everything. Some of them even call Nathuram Godse [assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, known as the Father of the Nation] as a ‘god’ and have built a temple for him,” Puniyani remarked.
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