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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: As they prepare to observe Christmas, Indian Christians say they look forward to reaching to out to other religious communities, which traditionally participate in their annual celebrations.
Christianity is the third-largest religion in India, after Hinduism and Islam, with some 36 million Christians constituting about 2.5 percent of the country’s population.
On Christmas, they decorate their churches with poinsettia flowers and candles and invite others to celebrate and feast with them.
Even though the Christian community is a minority one, Christmas markets spring up in cities across the country, while Santa Clauses, Christmas trees and illuminations decorate shopping centers and children set up Christmas nativity scenes.
“We are less than 3 percent of India’s population, but Christmas is celebrated universally in the country,” said P. D. Valson, a Christian baker from Bangalore.
“Streets are lit up, shops are decorated, there are special sales in the market and people from all faiths come to participate in the Midnight Mass. The popularity of Christmas shows the beauty of secular India, where people celebrate all festivals no matter which faith they belong to.”
For Awungshi Yaruingam, a Delhi University professor from the northeastern state of Manipur, Christmas is a time to invite friends of other faiths for a get-together.
“For me, Christmas has always been a community affair besides a personal belief,” he said.
Yaruingam belongs to the Naga tribe in Ukhrul district, which has distinct Christmas traditions.
“In the night, after the mass prayer on Dec. 25, villagers go around singing and dancing and collecting gifts from each and every household. The next day, we auction whatever we have collected, and the money collected goes to the church to perform its liturgical duty,” he told Arab News.
While this custom is not present in Delhi, Yaruingam makes sure his Christmas celebrations are still a community event.
“I belong to the University Bible Fellowship, a denomination of Christianity, and we believe in reaching out to the people and celebrating the birth of Christ together,” he said.
“We hold a prayer, discussion and dinner on Christmas Eve. This enhances the sense of interfaith camaraderie, which has been the hallmark of Indian society.”
Indian Christians of various denominations highlight the importance of inter-religious engagement, but recent years have marked a rise in violence against religious communities, especially Muslims and Christians.
The United Christian Forum for Human Rights, a coalition of Indian Christian organizations, has recorded a fourfold rise in attacks against Christians in the past decade, and in the first eight months of 2023 reported 525 such incidents.
“People are fed with wrong messages … There are negative forces acting upon the minorities now,” said Rev. Felix John, a Catholic missionary from the Society of the Divine Word based in Indore, Madhya Pradesh state.
He blamed the rise in violence on Hindu majoritarian politics, which has made interfaith relations more difficult.
Christmas is a time to mend the ties.
“Christmas is not only a festival for Christians but also an opportunity to reach out to the people of other faiths and develop a sense of community,” he said.
For Sanjay Massey, a Delhi-based journalist, it is the most cherished festival. He will send to his friends the traditional Indian Christmas plum cake and meet the community at Midnight Mass on the night of Christmas Eve.
“No matter which church you go to in Delhi, you will see it full on Christmas Eve, and many of the attendees are people from other faiths,” he said.
“Christmas is also celebrated in almost all schools in Delhi, no matter whether it is a Christian school (or not) … This community participation is the beauty of this festival.”
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