An Indian Catholic leader welcomed the parting message of U.S. President Barack Obama, who reiterated freedom of religion as a fundamental right.
"We are very happy that the U.S. president has spoken out clearly on the issue of religious freedom," Archbishop Albert D'Souza of Agra, secretary-general of Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told Catholic News Service Jan. 27.
The same day, Obama spoke to more than 1,800 preselected people, most of them youths, at a town hall meeting in New Delhi. It was one of his last acts at the end of a three-day visit to mark India's Republic Day and strengthen U.S.-Indian ties.
"Every person has a right to practice their faith how they choose or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination," Obama said.
"Your [constitutional] Article 25 says that all people are 'equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess and practice and propagate religion.' In both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom of religion is the responsibility of the government, but it's also the responsibility of every person," Obama said.
He quoted Mahatma Gandhi, who said people are "beautiful flowers from the same garden ... branches of the same majestic tree."
But he noted, "We've seen intolerance and violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to be standing up for their faith, but, in fact, are betraying it."
Noting that in the U.S. and India, "our diversity is our strength," Obama cautioned, "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith."
Archbishop D'Souza told CNS he did not think Obama was speaking only for a particular community, such as Christians.
"His focus was freedom of religion and religious harmony, absence of which is threatening world peace now," the archbishop said.
He also expressed happiness that "President Obama's hard talk shows that the world is taking seriously what is happening in the country. Hope things will change for the better now," he added.
India is about 80 percent Hindu, and some Hindus have forced people of other faiths to "reconvert" to Hinduism.
On Jan. 21, the Indian bishops' conference issued a statement urging the government "to uphold the secular nature of India" in the wake of several incidents of attacks, reconversion of Christians and calls for converting India into a Hindu nation.
"The Christians of this country need assurance from the government that we are protected and secure and safe in our motherland," the conference said.
Archbishop D'Souza said the church was also elated over Indian President Pranab Mukherjee's Republic Day message that "religion is a force for unity; we cannot make it a cause of conflict."