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The challenges of interfaith marriages

NEW DELHI (UCAN): Theologians are saying that Pope Francis’ encouragement to local Churches to develop new approaches to interfaith marriage in is exhortation, The Joy of Life, is timely, as it challenges the Church to change its attitude and pastoral approach toward their increasing number in southern Asia, where Christians continue to be a tiny minority.

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a theologian from India married to a Hindu according to Hindu rites, is a specialist in women’s issues. She believes that the pope’s approach is good, as it recognises the experience and maturity of the local bishops and pastors.

Gajiwala says that many Catholics and the Church hierarchy take a preventive approach toward interreligious marriage. When this changes, a more positive and welcoming attitude will develop.

The Church should see interreligious marriages in a wider context of evangelisation. “In such situations, baptism if it happens, is fine. If no baptism happens, that is also fine. Evangelisation does not always and necessarily involve baptism,” she said.

Sister Kochurani Abraham, from India, agrees. She believes that a wider concept of the Church, which includes all human beings, other living beings and creation, should be the basis for such marriages.

She says that if interreligious marriage is seen this way, it will not be an issue and conversion and baptism will not be forced on people.

The principles of interreligious dialogue can be applied in interreligious marriages also, seeing it as a life of shared faith in one creator God and not insisting the either spouse accept a particular faith.

“All problems of doctrine and theology will disappear if we start with life,” Sister Abraham said, explaining that the challenge is to see human issues in life situations first, before applying doctrinal formulations.

In his exhortation, the pope admits that interreligious marriages are on the rise in many places and Church officials in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka and Hindu-majority India say they know from pastoral experience that the number is increasing.

Pope Francis says that the situation urgently requires a differentiated pastoral care according to various social and cultural contexts.

Bangladeshi Bishop Gervas Rozario said he welcomes the universal Church’s acknowledgment of the problem and we appreciate Pope Francis for leaving it to local Churches to make their own decisions.

“It is logical to leave the issue to the local Church to find a solution, because cultures, social and racial contexts are different all across the world,” he said.

Bishop Rozario said that in his country, Catholics are conservative and often take a hardline approach to interreligious marriages, leading to unexpected social disputes and ostracism.

“The priests will need to work with people to help them realise the call the pope has made. Marrying anyone is a human right and those who make mistakes by violating Church marriage rules, shouldn’t be ostracised or disqualified from joining the Church,” the bishop said.

Father Mintu Palma, the convener of the Family Life Commission on Interreligious Marriages in Dhaka, said that problems start when either the husband or wife try to dominate the other or force their own religion on them.

In Sri Lanka, marriages between Catholics and Buddhists are on the rise. Father Stephen Perera, from Galle, said some 70 per cent of the marriages in his diocese are interreligious.

He added that the non-Catholics are less inclined to come to Church with their spouse these days and often the children are not baptised.

Most Buddhist partners and their families do not consider Catholics as equals and the Catholic depends on the goodwill of the partner to practice his or her faith.

“The prevailing fanaticism leaves no ground for such possibilities. Such marriages are only successful if the families have been abroad and are liberal or educated. In most cases, Christian girls marrying into Muslim families do not get respect and dignity or a chance to practice their faith,” he said.

Virginia Saldanha, from Mumbai, says people in such situations need support groups. Some years ago, a meeting organised by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences suggested the creation of support groups, but nothing has been done.

But most of all, “The attitude towards interreligious marriage should change. For too long we have seen it as something sinful and negative. When we have a positive attitude towards it, positive changes will naturally take place,” Saldanha said.

It is a great challenge, as Father Stephen Alathara, deputy secretary to the Indian Bishops’ Conference said. Essentially it demands the development of a positive and human approach.

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