Building Bridges Across Religions
Shannon, Jesuit Missions International Programmes Officer, recently visited the south Indian state of Kerala. In a country known for it’s many religious cultures, he was fascinated to learn about the work that local Jesuit initiative Lok Manch have been doing to build bridges across the different religions.
Christians are a minority group in India. They form only 2.3% of the country’s population. Although religious freedom and interfaith dialogue is an integral part of Indian society, these have come under great strain in recent times. The rise of right-wing extremist groups and religious fundamentalism in India have meant that Jesuits working in the country are finding less tolerance and support and are experiencing increasing hostility and aggression.
In such difficult times, one large scale Jesuit development project is breaking new ground and trying to rebuild fragile bridges across religious groups. The Lok Manch project, supported by Jesuit Missions, works with 300,000 Indian households regardless of their religious background. Across India, almost 50% of the households supported by Lok Manch are Hindu households which are poor and in need of support. Similarly, 6.7% of the total households supported are Muslim houses and 14.6% are of the tribal religion Sarna. Out of the 300,000 households supported in India, only 13.9% are Christian households. The committed work of the Jesuits with families beyond the Church is an act of courageous witness and an attempt to build solidarity and harmony at a difficult time in India.
Such attempts at building bridges across religious lines were demonstrated to me during my recent trip to Kerala in Southern India. The committed work of the Jesuits in the impoverished neighbourhoods that I visited showed a real difference their presence was making at the community level. The local Indian Jesuit Fr Benny, who has been partnering with Jesuit Missions through Lok Manch, has worked hard over many years to build trust with the impoverished Muslim community in the region. As a result of this newly formed relationship, Muslim neighbourhoods have now begun to welcome Christians into their areas and freely collaborate with Christians to demand collective social and political rights for their region. For example, Christians and Muslims came together during a Lok Manch protest march to demand basic rights and services for their neighbourhood. Such solidarity did not exist before the Jesuit efforts in the region. Here the fundamental Ignatian principle of being men and women for others means that Jesuits accompany people in and through their local ways of being and enable communities to live in religious harmony.