Fr Cedric Prakash SJ
Director of Jesuit “Prashant,” Ahmedabad
You have been working for refugees of the Middle East. How did they become refugees?
The reality of refugees and migrants is not new. In the Bible we read about the people in ‘exile. ’ Moses and his people were refugees in Egypt. Mary and Joseph also went as refugees to Egypt. Millions of people lost everything after the Second World War. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t learn a lesson. There is still war and persecution taking place in different parts of the world. The greatest tragedy of today is happening in parts of Africa. In South America, many people are trying to get into the United States to escape sufferings. Everything is happening in the Middle East has been very bad, particularly the last eight years in Syria and the last three years in Yemen. There has been war and persecution there. Fr Pedro Arrupe, the former General of the Society of Jesus, felt that it was a serious problem and that the Jesuits should respond to the cries of the ‘boat people’ fleeing Vietnam and Cambodia! He himself had in 1945-46, the experience of being in the midst of the holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He saw enough suffering, fleeing and the displacement of people. Ultimately he founded the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) on 14 November 1980.
For the last three years,(2016-18), I have worked with the JRS in the Middle East, based in Lebanon but spending a lot of time in Syria, Jordan and Iraq. We try to help refugees in all possible ways. We provide kitchen utensils, food kits, clothes and all their immediate requirements. We also conduct educational programmes for children, skill development and counselling. My specific role in all these years has been on advocacy and communications. I have been trying to highlight the suffering of the people, through a rights-based approach. We reach out to human beings who are being persecuted, who have had to flee the security of their homes. We transcend the narrow confines of religion! The one suffering is NOT a Muslim- but my brother, my sister. Jesus wants us to respond to their plight. Pope Francis has made this an essential dimension of his pontificate!
What did the refugees teach you as a Christian?
I have learned much from the refuges and the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and I am very grateful for that. First of all, I now have a better understanding of human suffering. These are people who have left their homes, their belongings, their property, and their loved ones. Overnight, they had to flee! Some of them, whom I met said they walked three months and more, through the freezing cold. Several of them fall prey to and become victims of human smuggling and human trafficking. The second thing I learnt is the incredible patience which they have. Like Job in the Bible. Their faith in God and in humanity is amazing. Most believe that their suffering is just temporary. They strongly believe that God will help and end their suffering one day. They have lost their parents, children, siblings and other loved ones. I have listened to mothers and children who lost everything, suffered a lot, but they still live in hope. The third thing that I realised is that, even in the midst of sufferings, people are ready to help one another. There is a high degree of selflessness. In the refugee camp, even a little child happily shares their food or snacks with others. These hungry little children who amaze us with their selflessness. The final thing I noticed is that they are constantly questioning. They question the meaning of suffering. Suffering is not necessarily a blessing. They move closer to God, but also ask “why me”? And they challenge God. They talk to God. They say, let this cup pass away from me.
There are people like Trump or Victor Orban who shut their doors on the refugees. That kind of an insular ideology causes an identity crisis, doesn’t it?
In several Western (and so –called ‘Christian’ countries) the emergence of right-wing politics is on the increase! The emergence of xenophobia, jingoism and exclusivism is a cause of great concern. In every message that he gives, the Pope expresses special concern for the refugees, the migrants and the displaced. He has asked people to welcome refugees and to protect their rights and integrate them into the society. The Pope uses these four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. The Pope wants every Catholic parish in Europe to accept at least one refugee family. There are however many people in the west who resent a hijab or burqa wearing woman in their midst. This is strange. Mary the Mother of Jesus always wears a hijab! Many of our women religious women congregations still have a veiled dress. The wearing of the hijab (and even the burqa) are old Middle-Eastern customs, which was practiced by the Jewish people much before Christianity and Islam! How does a Muslim wearing a hijab/burqa become your enemy? For centuries, our women in India have been covering their heads in front of elders. What is wrong with that? Petty and identity politics have selectively made all Muslims ‘the enemy’. The US military-industrial complex has a huge role in supporting terrorist organisations all over the world! This is not a State secret. The US gives billions of dollars of arms and ammunition to countries like Saudi Arabia– We need to question to whom are these deadly weapons going to and where are they being used? The dictatorial tendencies of Saudi Arabia to take over the whole of the Middle East is a serious issue. Look at what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen. The politics of Hungary, Brazil, Austria, parts of Scandinavia is very sad, and in India too. In 1970s, when I was in college, I saw Mother Teresa working among the Bangladeshi Muslims. She was a goddess to them. She cared for them. Welcoming the stranger is part of the last judgment.
Why is religion becoming a political problem in the face of human tragedy?
I think religion has been used, abused, misused by politicians of every kind. Even Christian right wing groups do exactly what the ‘Islamists’ are doing. Buddhist fundamentalism is blatantly obvious in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Here, some fundamentalists use the ‘Hindutva’ ideology. Very often, the vast majority of the people are rendered voiceless. For example, the building of the Ram Mandir, destroying the Babri Masjid etc. are disturbing stories from India. Used as a political tool by the ‘hindutva’ brigade.
We are witnessing the metamorphosis of Hinduism into Hindutva. Do you think it can happen to every other religion?
Yes, I definitely feel so. Every religion has a small fringe group. In the case of Sabarimala, the question of dignity of men and women was discussed. You cannot polarise people on that ground and use it for political mileage. Of course, all sorts of people use religion for their own justification. The same question is asked within the Catholic Church about LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender). Now the real point is that we have to accept every human being as created in the image and likeness of God, as Pope Francis so often reminds us.
BJP’s Ghar Vapsi is happening to every religion now. Isn’t that scary?
I do agree with you. The world has just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the many rights guaranteed is the right to freely practice and propagate one’s religion and the right to choose the religion of one’s choice. If you are a woman, you should be free to go to the Sabarimala Temple to worship. Basically, you cannot deny others their rights.
The birth of Christ ushered in humanism. He taught us that all human beings are the children of God. After so many centuries, we do not find that humanism getting vast acceptance. Why so?
I would definitely say Jesus guides us. We have clear instructions from him: in the messianic proclamation, the Beatitudes and Last Judgment. He speaks in a very concrete way; mercy and compassion must reach out to everyone. Christianity, even in India, is becoming more and more exclusive. Pope Francis tells us that we cannot be an exclusive club. With an attitude of mercy and compassion we must reach out to others in very tangible ways. In his message for World Day of Peace 2019, he emphatically says that good politics is the service of peace. Corruption is rampant everywhere! Even the so-called Catholic politicians are ready to destroy the environment; they make a lot of money from mining. How can we ensure that compassion, mercy, peace, love, joy and justice prevail? Jesus came to bring all this to us. Our attitude towards one another, our lack of transparency and our inability to deal with serious issues are indeed very troubling.
Is the Church morally strong enough to challenge this politics of the denial of humanity? What have you to tell the Church in India today, beset as it is with a lot of scandals?
Yes, there has been sin and scandal in the Church from the time of Jesus. We always had people who wanted power and privilege. The sexual abuse of children and the lack of transparency have all happened. This sinfulness is perhaps due to a miniscule minority. The rest of us must stand up, visibly and vocally, for truth and justice. Let our light shine in the world. In the temptations in the desert, Satan lures Jesus with ‘power, privilege, and possessions ‘. Jesus, rejects them all and strongly tells Satan to get away from him. We need to play a prophetic role today in India. We should remember that Jesus wants us to be the leaven in the dough, the salt of the earth, and wants our light to shine! How do we become so? We need to work in harmony with all men and women of goodwill. We should NOT be afraid of anyone. When we do so, it is a clear betrayal of Jesus’ mandate to us: “fear no one”
How happy are you as a Jesuit and as a priest?
I have never regretted my vocation for a single moment. I have always been happy being a Jesuit and a priest. I have my failings. But I know that the Lord is with me and goads me on!
You have been a target of accusations, you have been attacked and you have been criticised. What makes you happy even in the midst of all this?
That is true! Whilst, I have a share of appreciation and applause; there are certainly some who are unable to accept what I do or say! I respect them. I am convinced however, that being a disciple of Jesus, I have a prophetic role to play. That is not my prerogative only. All are called to do so! I am open to dialogue- but I really cannot help it if people within and outside the Church feel threatened by my stands. I pray for them. I ask them to pray for me too!
You are a strong man, because you are a man of integrity. You have the moral calibre needed to give leadership to people. Don’t you feel proud to be so?
I do not know how far all this is true about me. I have my limitations and weaknesses, but I do my best. There are threats from different quarters. In the past they have attacked me, made attempts to kill me and even broken into my office and stolen important data! Back in India now, after three years with the refugees in the Middle East, I know that I have a role to play – certainly not alone- but in tandem with all men and women of goodwill, who are concerned about the terrible situation of our country today!