Archbishop Anil Couto has started a political firestorm in India. The Archbishop of Delhi recently published a pastoral letter arguing that attacks on minorities threatened India’s “democratic principles and secular fabric”. He urged Catholics to join a prayer campaign ahead of next year’s general election, when, he said, “we will have a new government”.

A Hindu nationalist politician accused the archbishop of following “an order from Italy” (sic), just as other fifth columnist followed orders from India’s sworn enemy, Pakistan. “The day will soon come when the Hindus understand this and smash both to save India,” he tweeted. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) claimed that Indian Catholics were colluding with the Vatican to sow “distrust” in the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Such accusations would be laughable if they weren’t so damaging. The campaign group Open Doors documented some 600 examples of anti-Christian persecution in India last year. “Under Modi, religious freedom violations against Christians – such as social exclusion, abuse and imprisonment – have spread unchecked,” the charity concluded.

Persecution is inspired by the belief that Christianity is a foreign import and that Catholics’ ultimate loyalty is to Rome rather than New Delhi. This prejudice ignores the deep historical ties between the Catholic Church and India. The nation’s Catholics trace their origins back to the Apostle Thomas, and history records that an Indian bishop visited Rome during the 12th-century reign of Pope Callixtus II.

The incendiary reaction to Archbishop Couto’s letter suggests that Church leaders can’t even discuss growing persecution with their own flocks without being accused of betraying India. What can the Church do in such a toxic climate? It could try to rally international support. But in the West, at least, there is little sympathy for persecuted religious minorities. And besides, this would only reinforce the narrative that the Indian Church is an agent of foreign powers.

The only option, then, is for Church leaders to petition India’s politicians. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai has reportedly been trying to stamp out fires following Archbishop Couto’s letter. Still, there is no guarantee that the government will listen to him.

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