Indian bishops’ ‘guidelines’ for Catholic schools elicit mixed reaction — By: Catholic News Agency

Students in morning assembly prayer in Catholic school at Seppa in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. / Credit: Anto Akkara

Bangalore, India, Apr 10, 2024 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

New guidelines for Catholic schools from the Catholic bishops of India have elicited mixed reactions in the country, with many applauding the move to respect “all faith traditions” while others have accused the Church of bending to pressure from Hindu fundamentalists.

The 13-page document issued to India’s 15,000 Catholic educational institutions includes a recommendation that schools display the preamble to the Indian Constitution at school entrances and that children recite the preamble during daily assemblies.

The bishops’ education commission said the document was written “to face the emerging challenges due to the current socio-cultural-religious-political situation in India.” Its release comes ahead of elections that will take place between April 17 and June 1. 

The guidelines come at a particularly tense time in India, where Hindus make up 79.8% of the population. The Hindu fundamentalist group Kutumba Surakshya Parishad (Family Safety Council) in Assam launched a protest in February demanding a ban on Christian symbols such as crosses and statues, the religious dress of priests and nuns, and Christian prayers in educational institutions.

The Indian bishops’ recommendations have been widely hailed as a bold initiative by the Church and are in stark contrast to Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) efforts to delete the word “secular” from the preamble to the Indian Constitution.

The secular media applauded the Church guidelines with front-page headlines such as “Church calls for making constitution a shield” and “Recite preamble, don’t force Christian traditions: Catholic body to its schools.”

Besides calling for respecting “all faith traditions without any discrimination [and to] not force our religious traditions on students of other faiths,” the guidelines also prescribe the promotion of “religious and cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity with separate interreligious prayer rooms in the school, celebrating all important religious festivals.”

“Reciting the preamble is a great idea that the government and Hindu schools should also follow instead of religious morning assembly,” remarked John Dayal, a Catholic columnist, in his commentary in The Wire news portal on April 8. 

However, he decried what he said was “a response to the demands that have been made on institutions by state governments and non-state actors [Hindu fundamentalist groups].”

“Article 30 allows all religious and linguistic minorities to run educational institutions to nurture their core values, including faith, for future generations,” Dayal said.

“The Church has unnecessarily succumbed to the pressure tactics of the Hindu fundamentalists,” outspoken Jesuit activist Father Cedric Prakash told CNA on April 8. 

“These guidelines have not been made under pressure from any group,” Father Maria Charles, secretary of the Indian bishop’s education committee, told CNA when asked about recent threats from Hindu fundamentalists in northeastern states such as Assam and in central India. 

“There has been a lot of misunderstanding. The guideline calls for respect for other faiths in our institutions. But that does not mean that customary [Christian] prayers in the schools will stop. It will go on as usual,” Charles said. 

The guidelines, he said, were drafted following the November 2023 conference of 250 Catholic education experts from the Church, including diocesan education directors, hailing from across the country.

“The guideline addresses various challenges in dealing with admissions to administration in our Catholic institutions,” Charles explained. 

The Catholic Church in the country, he said, runs more than 14,000 schools, 720 colleges, seven universities, five medical colleges, and 450 technical and vocational training institutions. 

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