Celebrating Christmas in Dark Times — Jawed Naqvi

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Pope Francis called for an end to the war in Ukraine and other conflicts in his Christmas message on Sunday, saying the world was suffering from a “famine of peace”.

JAWED NAQVI

COME Christmas and the invisible jukebox lodged somewhere in the benign recesses of the brain switches inevitably to Jim Reeves and Mahalia Jackson’s carols. But Christmas has not been the same in recent years. Pope Francis called for an end to the war in Ukraine and other conflicts in his Christmas message on Sunday, saying the world was suffering from a “famine of peace”.

In his tenth Christmas ‘Urbi et Orbi’ (to the city and the world) blessing and message, the pontiff also urged people to look beyond the “shallow holiday glitter” and help the homeless, immigrants, refugees, and the poor in their midst seeking comfort. The “famine of peace” exposed man’s innate greed and cruelty, the pontiff might have added, which remains a challenge for the religious and temporal world alike. A devastating snow blizzard wiped out much of the “shallow glitter” the pope mentioned with disapproval. Swathes of the US and Canada and parts of Europe saw thousands of flights cancelled and many killed by the storm, prompting families to stay home. That the glitter, spurred by mindless consumerism, had contributed greatly to the destruction of the climatic cycles, which instigated the fury of nature, remains stubbornly unacknowledged. The destructive instinct lives unquenched.

An antidote may be underway for the coronavirus but the affliction of hate and sectarian violence grows undeterred.

The pope may have noticed with transient satisfaction that in June last year, the Lahore High Court acquitted the Christian couple Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar of blasphemy after they spent seven years on death row. The environment of bad blood remains robust, which is how the governor of Punjab was shot dead by his own fanatical security guard for seeking reprieve for a Christian woman from her ordeal with blasphemy charges. His killer was handed the death penalty but died a hero to a frighteningly vast multitude.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and India’s hidebound anti-terror laws seem kindred spirits, both weaponised to hunt down those the state disapproves of over any flimsy ruse. A month after Shafqat and Shagufta won their unlikely reprieve, 84-year-old Catholic priest Father Stan Swami died as an inmate of the Mumbai jail. Stricken by partial paralysis, the pious Christian prisoner was denied the use of a straw to sip water. As fabricated and malicious charges stalk the expendable citizenry in Pakistan, US technical groups that studied Father Swamy’s case claimed that his laptop had been doctored and the evidence against him forged. Other inmates accused of Maoist links with Swamy had a similar story to tell.

Jim Reeves’ baritone Christmas songs still salve the burdened mind, but the mind is its own place, says John Milton, and it strays from its cocoon to distant fields of pain and trauma. The pope probably knows that tribal Christians in Chhattisgarh live in mortal fear of criminal assaults from Hindutva groups. Chhattisgarh is a Congress-ruled state and its chief minister has been taking part in Rahul Gandhi’s soul-lifting march from the south to the north of India. Yet, under the Congress’s watch in the state, the Christian tribespeople are under assault by Hindutva groups.

“The reluctance of the government in performing its role of ensuring security to the Christian tribals shows how difficult it is even for secular parties to rule in a secular fashion,” says Dr. Apoorvanand, former professor at Delhi University and a leading social scientist. “They allow violence, they allow displacement and they resist any attempt to provide support to Christians. … As I write, I read that a man dressed as Santa was beaten in Baroda in Gujarat, and that a Sunday prayer was disrupted somewhere in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh,” Apoorvanand wrote in The Wire.

The Christian minority in Chhattisgarh faces a vicious religious adversary. But the trauma of Ukraine is harder to explain. People swearing by a common religion are ranged against each other in a bitter fratricidal war there. Though not entirely unknown, strange schisms remain an intractable feature of our times. Ukrainians and Russians had fought the Nazis together, shared a common religion and countless other elements of culture and tradition. In India, Hindus and Muslims represent different faiths and may have a problem with each other, as is often the case. How to explain the slow-speed massacre in Rwanda, where two tribes spoke the same language, went to the same church and intermarried too; and yet they could find enough venom to want to decimate the other?

A Christian website says President Zelensky started December by endorsing a draft law to “make it impossible” for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, canonically linked to Moscow, to operate. His Dec 1 decree followed raids on several monasteries under the UOC’s jurisdiction. Security services apparently searched over 350 buildings and investigated 850 people. The mistrust is pervasive.

“We will ensure complete independence for our state. In particular, spiritual independence.” Mr Zelensky was raging at fellow believers who spoke the same language and shared a long history of bonding. Hindutva leaders talk similarly of freeing India of Muslims and Christians. “We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside Ukrainian soil.” Rings a bell?

The reaction from Russia was swift, we are told. “The current Ukrainian authorities have openly become enemies of Christ and the Orthodox faith,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council. The response echoed charges frequently heard in India in recent years: ‘That Hindu is anti-Hindu. Send him to Pakistan.’

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was more specific, accusing Ukraine of “waging a war on the Russian Orthodox Church”. In another zone, Christians from distant lands thronged to Bethlehem in unusually high numbers to celebrate the land of their Saviour’s birth. Bethlehem is today part of an open prison though, endorsed by the world and operated by Israel. Its illusory name is Palestine. And, surely, Jim Reeves sings there too.

C. Dawn

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