Christians oppose demand for ban on Agnes of God: Press Statement

We, the following signatories,  object to Mr. Joseph Dias, Secretary, Catholic Secular Forum, issuing press statements, representing himself as the spokesperson of the entire community while he seeks bans on films and plays on the ground that they hurt the sentiments of the Catholic religious community in India.  Since such demands tarnish the image of the entire community, we appeal to the press that they should not be projected as the views of the entire Christian community.
 
We wish to state that the views expressed by him are his own, or at best, that of his organization and this by no stretch of the imagination, can be portrayed as the views of the entire Catholic community, as is being done in recent times. His demands are sensational in nature and are self serving to attract media attention unto himself and we are opposed to the same.  

His recent target is the play directed by Kaizaad Kotwaal which is based on the original play by John Pielmeier performed in the US in 1979.  He claimed that it was based on a true story.  For nearly forty years no one had ever demanded a ban on it on the ground that it hurts religious sentiments of the Catholic community despite the fact that it was staged in many countries. It was adapted into a film by the same name in 1985, starring Jane Fonda, which won several Academy Award nominations.  It is styled as a murder mystery around the death of a new born infant, strangled to death at birth using its own umbilical cord. The young nun cannot explain the person responsible for the pregnancy, the other nuns in the convent, including the mother superior, feign innocence. The nun herself claims that it was an “immaculate conception”, and efforts are made to project her as insane, to save her from the murder charges.

 
It is rather disturbing that the Catholic religious leadership, particularly the apex body (CBCI –Catholic Bishops Conference of India)  has responded to the issue and has endorsed the demand for a ban on the ground that the  play hurts the religious sentiments of Christians because it “misinterprets the religious belief of the Christian Community and wrongly portrays character of thousands of the clergy who are committed to a life of celibacy”.  
 
Ban of books, films, plays and artistic works on the pretext of “hurting religious sentiments” of the followers of a particular community have become a fad and we appeal to the Church hierarchy to restrain from subscribing to this trend. Such demands violate the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression and is an affront on the democratic traditions of our country.
 
We endorse the views expressed by Fr. Jacob Peenikaparambil, CMI  (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate), who, in an open letter to Cardinal Cleemis (President of the apex body, CBCI), has questioned why the Church is spending its energy on a non-issue while several crucial issues facing minority communities have remained unaddressed.  According to him, it is preposterous to believe that staging of a play at a few places will tarnish the image of the Christian  clergy. “Is our faith  so weak that a book or play can destroy it?” he questions.
 
In an insightful comment, he states that “a film or a play could be a criticism of an existing evil and the intent of the author or producer could be to dissuade people from committing the evil”.  This is a moot point which many women leaders within the community wish to bring to the fore and are working towards bringing remedial measures to curb such evil.
 
Instead of focusing on a non issue, Fr. Peenikaparambil, while commenting on the recent beef murder case, has expressed concern that the Church should take initiative to bring together all secular forces committed to the protection of human rights and approach the National Human Rights Commission against increasing attacks on minorities in the country.
 
We endorse his views and hope that the Church gets more involved in defense of democratic values, right of freedom of speech and expression and rights of minorities and concerns of gender justice in the country.
 
Ms. Flavia Agnes, Director, Majlis Legal Centre  – Contact:   flaviaagnes@gmail.com
Ms. Virginia Saldanha, Secretary, Indian Christian Women’s Movement – womynvs@gmail.com
Sr. Noella D’Souza, member of the Mumbai based organization, Styashodhak, which was formed in 1985 to bring to the fore the concerns of Roman Catholic women – Contact: noelladesouza@gmail.com 
Sr. Julie George, a lawyer and  Director of a Pune based organization, Streevani, which works for the empowerment of women, and helps marginalized  women to access their rights in court Contact: julierosegeorge@gmail.com
Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, an expert in Christian theology and a member of the Mumbai Women’s Desk Core Team – Contact:  asklobog@gmail.com
Ms. Brinelle Ds’ouza, Faculty, Centre for Health and Mental Health, Tata Institute of Social Sciencesbrinelledsouza@gmail.com
Fr. Cedric Prakash, Prashant  Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.     email – cedricprakash@gmail.com
Dr. John Dayal, Member of the National Integration Council (NIC) of India and Secretary General,All India Christian Council   Coontact:  john.dayal@gmail.com
Suren Abreu, Satyashodhak
Mario da Penha, PhD Candidate in History, Rutgers University  mario.dpenha@gmail.com
Larrisa Pitter, Freelance Consultant – pitterlarissa@gmail.com
Conrad Pereira, Mumbai
Nadia D’souza, Student, School of Fashion Technology, Pune   dsouza.nadia.5@gmail.com
Asha Banu Soletti, Professor, Centre for Health and Mental Health, TISS
Dr. Jennifer Kipgen, Ass​istant Professor, Centre for Health and Mental Health, TISSProf. Anjali   Monteiro, TISS.monteiro@tiss.edu
Anzu Augustine, Kerala  anzu.maria@gmail.com
Fr Allwyn D’Silva, Parish Priest
Rohan D’souza, Student
Eldred Tellis, Consultant, Drug Abuse and AIDS Interventions, Mumbai  et.mumbai@gmail.com
Pooja Paul , Delhi    711pooja@gmail.com>

3 thoughts on “Christians oppose demand for ban on Agnes of God: Press Statement

  1. rev. dr. pbm. basaiawmoit

    Though not a Catholic, I would agree with the views expressed. We have been too silent on the rights of minorities being trampled including acts of intimidation in various forms undertaken through majoritarian approaches. At the same time, there must be introspection and initiatives for internal reforms of the Church – local, national and global.
    The ban culture sensitises and is an expression of intolerance as well acts opposite to what one desires , viz. right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Art. 19 to India’s Constitution which includes the right to dissent. Let’s desist from making an issue out of a non-issue.

  2. Nivedita Menon

    Flavia Agnes, feminist lawyer and legal scholar on this issue in The Deccan Chronicle:

    Rarely do I move away from my avowed field of expertise in this column, i.e. concerns of women within the legal domain or examining the inherent bias within laws and procedures. However, the recent controversy over a play, Agnes of God, raised by certain individuals claiming to represent the Catholic community, constrains me to claim my right to speak as a citizen, a member of the community and as someone who has been actively involved in reforming the Christian divorce laws a decade or two ago, rendering divorce more accessible to Christians.
    What is rather disturbing is that the Roman Catholic religious leadership has bitten the bait. Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), has, in a letter to the home minister, demanded a ban on the ground that the play hurts the religious sentiments of Christians because, he writes, it “misinterprets the religious belief of the Christian Community and wrongly portrays character of thousands of the clergy who are committed to a life of celibacy”.
    This letter followed the press statement released by Archdiocese of Bombay on September 29, claiming that the promotional advertisements of the play distort Catholic religious concepts as they portray Catholic nuns as “characters lacking in integrity and guilty of cover-up of infanticide” and that “such a depiction… unfair to our religious sisters who are working selflessly with dedication and generosity… will lower the esteem for nuns in the eyes of children to whom nuns impart knowledge and human values”.
    Agnes of God, directed by Kaizaad Kotwal, is based on the original play by John Pielmeier which, the writer claimed, was based on a true story. It was performed in the US in 1979 and adapted into a film of the same name in 1985, starring Jane Fonda. It won several Academy Award nominations.
    The play is styled as a murder mystery around the death of a newborn. The child’s mother, a young nun, explains her pregnancy as “immaculate conception” and claims not to know how the child was strangled to death at birth with the umbilical cord. The other nuns in the convent, including the mother superior, feign ignorance and project her as insane to save her from murder charges.
    Since the controversy arose, the director has alleged that he has received threats of arrest, imprisonment and harm to body and property, but that he won’t “give in”. The first performance of the play, scheduled for September 4, 2015, had to be cancelled because of protests, but the play was performed on Monday evening at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). The performance was filmed by authorities to check for any objectionable content.
    One strong voice that has emerged against the demand for a ban on the play is of Fr. Jacob Peenikaparambil, Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), who, in an open letter to Cardinal Cleemis, asked, “Is our faith so weak that a book or play can destroy it?”
    While questioning why the Church is spending its energy on a non-issue when several crucial issues facing the minority community in India remain unaddressed, he said that “a film or a play could be a criticism of an existing evil and the intent of the author or producer could be to dissuade people from committing evil”.
    Fr. Jacob Peenikaparambil, commenting on the recent beef murder case, said that the Church should, instead, take the initiative to bring together all secular forces committed to the protection of human rights and approach the National Human Rights Commission against increasing attacks on minorities in the country.
    Catholics are a beef eating community and it’s precisely for this reason that the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Goa has not introduced a beef ban though it’s been enforced in the neighbouring Maharashtra. But, there have been instances of Catholic women being harassed and detained at check points while travelling from Goa to Mumbai on the suspicion of carrying beef. The Church in Mumbai has never raised concerns regarding this. The only Catholic voice of protest one heard was that of Julio Rebeiro, the former DIG of Punjab, who opposed the ban as a beef eating Christian.
    Several Roman Catholic women leaders have opposed the demand for a ban on the play and questioned the authority of Joseph Dias, secretary, Christian Secular Forum, to speak for the entire community.
    This is not the first time Mr Dias has demanded a ban. In August 2012, he had demanded a ban on the Bollywood film Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum. Some feel that such demands tarnish the image of the entire community, as their motive is often nothing more than seeking publicity.
    Ban on books, films, plays and artistic works on the pretext of “hurting religious sentiments” of a particular community have become a fad and the Church should restrain from subscribing to this trend.
    Virginia Saldanha, secretary, Indian Christian Women’s Movement, has said the issues raised in the play are relevant to Christian women in India and that by demanding a ban, the Church has invited attention to the issue that has been simmering for a long time.
    Though by and large women are reluctant to raise the issue of sexual harassment, a few incidents that were brought to light were investigated and the accused had been held guilty. But these are seldom discussed in public forums either within the Church or outside.
    With the aim of bringing remedial measures, several Catholic women’s associations had come together in 2012, to draft a policy on sexual harassment of women within the Church and after labouring over several preliminary attempts, had submitted a well-formulated draft to the CBCI in 2013 for approval. But the religious leadership of Catholics in India has been dragging its feet over it.
    Bishop Agnello Gracias, a prominent Church leader in Mumbai, has been an ardent supporter of these efforts. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who heads the Archdiocese of Bombay, had assured that he would do his best to ensure that the policy is implemented. Despite these assurances, there has not been much progress.
    Of course these issue concerns women across communities, and is not a unique malaise afflicting the Roman Catholic Church in India. Precisely because such cases have been creeping out of the woodworks in all religious communities, it is time we found ways of curbing the unbridled power of male religious leadership upon gullible women devotees, disciples and handmaidens. And this could begin with the Church adopting a strong policy against sexual harassment of women, rather than sweeping the issue under the carpet.

  3. K SHESHU BABU

    It is sad to note that the hindu right wing is not the only one riding on fanaticism, Catholics are also following suit…
    Democritus stood the test of time…. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N.Hawthorne stood the test of time…
    ‘The De Vinci Code’ stood the test of time…
    Albert Camus stood the test of time…
    Sulman Rushdie stood the test of time….
    Gora a telugu athiest, stood the test of time….
    Rsnganayakamma, a telugu writer of ‘Ramayana Vishavriksham’ (The poisonous tree of Ramayana) stood the test of time and emerged as a great feminist-Marxist..
    And time stands the ‘test of time’….

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