This has started sooner than I expected. I knew that you are not allowed to celebrate Diwali in Nagaland, but it seems the Catholics have also begun to suffer the effects of Baptist bigotry. Well, one intolerant bigot versus another intolerant bigot — no skin off our backs.
Baptists in the Indian state of Nagaland are defending themselves against charges of anti-Catholic bigotry after villagers tore down a Catholic church because the town allows only churches of the Baptist denomination. The controversy has generated widespread media attention, pitting Catholics against the Nagaland Baptist Church Council.
Iringtie Kauring — the council’s acting general secretary while his boss, Anjo Keikung, traveled to attend this week’s Baptist World Congress in Hawaii — released a statement saying the crisis in the village of Anatangre had been “blown out of proportion by people without studying the ground realities and listening to both parties in conflict.”
“The conflict is not between Catholics and Baptists, but between Catholics and Anatangre Village Council,” Kauring said. “The Village Council has considerable authority in solving any problem within its jurisdiction for the welfare of the people. Therefore, NBCC appeals all concerned to address the crisis in the right perspective for the sake of peace and harmony in our land.”
Catholic and media critics said the statement was too slow in coming and could have been more conciliatory in tone. The controversy occurs at a time when Baptists are taking a leadership role in opposing an effort to lift Nagaland’s prohibition on liquor, established in 1990.
Catholic priest Abraham Lotha penned a column in The Morung Express comparing the Baptist leaders’ statement to “refusing to see the elephant in the room.” While Baptists and Catholics coexist peacefully in many Nagaland villages, Lotha lamented, “The truth is that anti-Catholicism is still the staple food for many people in Nagaland.”
Nearly 150 years after the first American Baptist missionaries arrived, 65 percent of Nagaland’s 1.9 million citizens are Christians, according to the council. Among native Nagas, whose ancestors were headhunters, the figure is 90 percent.
The vast majority of Nagaland’s Christians are Baptists, creating an irony that in India — a country often known for persecution of Christians by Hindus — Baptists are being portrayed as oppressors.
Catholic schools across the state shut down to protest what the Catholic Association of Nagaland called a denial of “basic human rights.”
The deputy commissioner in Kiphire district ruled July 23 that an Anatangre Village Council resolution passed in 1991 prohibiting the establishment of churches of denominations other than Baptist had no legal standing. That resolution, passed in an attempt to prevent Baptists from converting to Catholicism, was behind a vote in March imposing fines and seizure of property against persons bringing other religions into the community.
Villagers constructing a Catholic Church in Anatangre were stopped July 9. The building was dismantled and construction materials were confiscated.
Ken Sehested, co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, N.C., said there is no doubt that tension exists between Catholic and Baptist communities in some locales in Nagaland. “The anti-Hindu prejudice is even worse,” Sehested said in an e-mail July 27.
Sehested, former director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, has traveled overseas with Daniel Buttry, an American Baptist missionary, to work on conflict resolution between various Naga factions.
Buttry, global consultant for peace and justice with International Ministries of American Baptist Churches USA, circulated an e-mail denouncing the actions taken against the Catholics in Anatongre.
“This is not in keeping with basic Baptist principles about freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” Buttry said. “Our Baptist forebears suffered under this kind of religious exclusion, and it is both ironic and shameful when Baptists treat others like they themselves don’t want to be treated.”
“Catholics are not our enemies but are part of the Body of Christ even if we disagree with some of their teachings and practices,” Buttry said.
Settled in northeast India for centuries, the Naga people wanted their independence after the fall of British control over the region. Instead they were established as an Indian state.
An article in the Indian Constitution grants Naga villages jurisdiction to pass resolutions to protect “traditional culture and practices,” but Catholics say that doesn’t mean they can deny fundamental rights like freedom of religion.
Kauring defended the Nagaland Baptist Church Council’s response and said July 27 it appeared that the village council in Anatangre was taking steps to resolve the situation.