Pope Francis, the good man whom the world got to know after he took over as Pope, must have least expected this. He (or whoever handles his Twitter account @Pontifex) would have been totally taken by surprise at the odd response from India that one particular tweet of his drew.
On his Twitter page, Pope Francis, besides his expected religious posts, shares messages which could strike almost anyone as insightful and inspiring. For instance, a recent one reads: “Political activity must truly be conducted at the service of the human person, with respect for creation and for the common good.”
Or take another that I liked, “We must fight corruption with determination. It is an evil based on the worship of money and it offends human dignity.” Even: “We all possess God-given talents. No one can claim to be so poor that they have nothing to offer others.”
But then, suddenly, in mid-December, a tweet from the Pope’s account drew a howl of protests from a section of the twitterati in India, of all places. The Pope had commented: “Sharing requires conversion, and this is a challenge. #ZeroHunger.”
To me, the ‘conversion’ being referred here is a change of heart, a move away from callousness, and one that shows concern towards a fellow man (and woman) still suffering from hunger and poverty in the 21st century when such issues should have been distant memories.
But, suddenly, as it happens with increasing frequency in the online world, all diverse issues got mixed up. The involvement of the Maharashtra chief minister’s wife (Amruta Fadvanis) in a Christmas party for kids became an issue. The Papal tweet was evidence enough to display the evil intent of changing people’s religion across the globe.
(Fadnavis was taking part in a BeSanta initiative, organised by the Big FM radio channel, meant to spread joy among underprivileged children during Christmas by inviting donations in the form of gifts.)
Admitted, religious conversion is a touchy issue in our parts of the world. It is also true that what is an issue for one religion, might not be an issue for the other religion, and vice versa. South Asia, particularly the cultures of India and Nepal, have issues over changing religion, unlike in other parts of the globe where the trend is for many people just becoming less religious. (Even if they sometimes become more bigoted at the same time.)
There are also other areas over which we see another’s religion adversely. Political leaders like Advani have spoken about the concept of one-god in monotheism as if it is a flaw (rather than an integral part) of the Abrahamic religions.
When it comes to religious conversions, apart from some of the smaller evangelical groups and sects, these hardly happen nowadays. Even when it happened centuries ago, the descendants of those who converted themselves seem to have no issues with their ‘new’ faith (which is actually centuries old by now). Even allegations of ‘love jihads’, involving young couples marrying across religious lines, would appear to be more hyped up than real.
When Francis’ Twitter account said: “We ask for the grace to make our faith more and more operative through acts of charity”, even this drew some negative responses. And I’m not talking about those who may have been Christians themselves, but turned irreligious for whatever reason. Rather, the critique comes from those who would like to see life as a competition amongst diverse religions. Some in our part of the globe linked charity with conversions, and so the game goes on. The motives behind any intention can be questioned.
Misunderstanding and mistrusting one another’s religion is a game that all can play, especially in a world where religious fault lines keep growing. Sometimes, it is political players who divide us on grounds of religion. But, perhaps, believers too have the duty to build understanding and bridges among people of different faith.
Inter-faith meetings today often end up in sessions where all pray together. In today’s diverse world, that is not an issue anyway. Most of us – with some conditionalities – will admit that there’s a need to respect each other’s faith and beliefs. If not respect, we at least have to tolerate this diversity, nobody would deny.
What is lacking is an understanding of each other’s reality, problems, fears and aspirations. If we do not want politics and other vested interests to set the agenda on such issues, it would make sense for the religious to work to understand one another.
This seldom happens, because we often live in worlds (or ghettoes) of our own making. When we grew up, studying in a Catholic-run school often meant interacting with other Catholic students, and being taught mainly by Catholic teachers. Today, there’s a different reality out there. The intermixing of diverse sections of religious and classes should be seen as a blessing, and not a threat.
I doubt people of even my parents’ generation would have needed to interact with such diverse people as do people of our generation. When I see youngsters of another generation, I marvel at the way they get on with one another, despite cultural and even religious differences. It is a genuine warmth and understanding, which comes from a realisation that 95 per cent of our needs, wants and aspirations are common in any case. (In fairness, it must be said that some of the suspicions planted in our collective mindsets still linger on though.)
But as we are forced to deal with diversity, we can also get more inward-looking. Is it our insecurity that makes us take on someone else’s beliefs? Maybe it’s time to recognise the powerful forces beyond us.