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Vatican highlights challenge of ‘hyper-nationalism’ in Diwali message

One day before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet Pope Francis, the Vatican released a message to Hindus that referred to the divisive nature of “hyper-nationalism.”
Lights for the celebration of the Hindu festival Diwali. | Abhinaba Basu via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

One day before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet Pope Francis, the Vatican released a message to Hindus that referred to the divisive nature of “hyper-nationalism.”

The message from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, published on Oct. 29, was addressed to Hindus on the occasion of the feast of Diwali, also known as Deepavali.

Diwali is one of the major religious festivals in Hinduism. The “festival of lights” will be celebrated this year on Nov. 4.

The Vatican’s interreligious dialogue council sends a message for this Hindu feast every year. But this year was the first time in recent years that the message also included a reference to “religious fundamentalism, terrorism, hyper-nationalism, xenophobia.”

Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, the president of the pontifical council, wrote that these described “pressing global issues that threaten to disrupt … the harmonious co-existence of people” but can be effectively addressed since they are “concerns that affect us all.”

The message was issued ahead of the pope’s first meeting with Modi, who assumed the office of prime minister seven years ago.

There have been significant religious freedom concerns under Modi’s leadership of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom listed India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade.

“The government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” the commission’s 2021 report said.

The report highlighted that one-third of India’s states limit or prohibit religious conversion, which has led to violence against non-Hindus.

“In 2020, for example, mobs — fueled by false accusations of forced conversions — attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services. In many cases, authorities did not prevent these abuses and ignored or chose not to investigate pleas to hold perpetrators accountable. This contributed to increased mob attacks and a fear of reprisal against those coming forward,” it found.

Pope Francis’ meeting with Modi is scheduled to last 30 minutes, whereas the pope’s meeting with the U.S. President Joe Biden the day prior was scheduled for an hour.

The pope had expressed hope in 2016 that he would visit India as a part of his 2017 to South Asia trip to Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar).

Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, reported at the time that Indian Catholic leaders had been in touch with Modi’s government about a papal visit, but that “they were not able to obtain a commitment.”

According to Vatican protocol, the pope only visits another country if the head of state sends an official invitation.

The last pope visit to India was John Paul II in 1999.

The Vatican’s Diwali message called on both Christians and Hindus to “bring the light of hope in people's lives in such challenging times.”

“The power of solidarity unleashed in alleviating the suffering and assisting the needy, more so with an interreligious character and responsibility, gives visibility to the light of hope by putting in evidence the response which adherents of all religious traditions are called upon to make in times of despair and darkness. Bringing light together in people's lives through interreligious solidarity also validates the usefulness and resourcefulness of religious traditions in society,” it said.

“A growing awareness of the need to be with and to belong to one another in the present pandemic period calls for finding, more and more, ways of bringing the light of hope where there is discord and division, destruction and devastation, deprivation and dehumanization.”

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