A few days ago, the Catholic Church apologized for its role in the genocidal Rwandan civil war, which claimed between 5-10 lakh lives. Although apologies by the Catholic Church have become increasingly common in recent years, they do draw attention to the destructive and villainous role played by the Church as an organization in the past. From destroying the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, to siding with Hitler in exterminating the Jews, from enslaving Africans during the Slave trade to slaughtering protestants, the Church has a dark, malevolent past, drenched in blood of the people who it crushed under the banner of ‘spreading civilization’ and ‘spreading the gospel’. In some ways, European powers of yore, especially the Spanish and the Portuguese, were not unlike the ISIS and Saudi Arabia of today, governed as they were by religious laws, where the Monarch took it upon himself to spread the Church’s agenda. The history of Spain and Portugal is filled with instances of forced conversions, torture, executions, all in the name of preventing heresy and adhering to Church’s dogma. While the destruction and havoc unleashed by the Spaniards and the Portuguese in Africa, Asia and Americas is commonly ascribed to the imperialistic policies of these empires, the fact remains that the empires were guided by the Church in devising their policies and executing them. Thankfully, now that the Church has recognized its destructive role, it is probably time for it to extend its apologies to a place closer home. The coast of western India holds in its bosom, dark and sinister secrets. Between the 16th and the 18th century, Portuguese imperialists, fired by their faith, unleashed unspeakable savagery on natives. Many were killed, burnt at the stake, driven away from their homes and many others forced to renounce the faith of their ancestors and accept a foreign religion. This is the story of desolation of Kerala and Goa by the Portuguese.
The Portuguese landed in Goa in the early 16th century. Goa at that time was a predominantly Hindu territory, inhabited by small numbers of Muslims. Initially, the Portuguese were interested only in trade and paid scant attention to Proselytization. Back home, in Portugal, however, things were changing, and non-Christians were finding it more and more difficult to continue with their way of life. Massacres against Jews followed soon and many Jews were forced to flee. Jewish converts to Christianity, called Conversos were still hounded for secretly practising their old faith. In this background, Inquisition was installed in Goa in 1560. One of the first acts of the Inquisitions was the banning of open display of the Hindu faith. Construction of Hindu temples was forbidden as was their maintenance. Restrictions were put on Hindu marriages, rites and rituals and even cremation. Wearing the sacred thread was outlawed as was the planting of Tulsi plant in the courtyard. Upper Caste Hindus were forbidden from riding the palanquins or on horsebacks. Hindu landowners could not employ Christian farmhands. All attempts were made by the Portuguese to induce natives to convert. These included forcible abduction of Orphans, forced lessons on Christianity to all over 15 years of age etc. Additionally, Portuguese soldiers would enter villages and throw pieces of beef on passers-by, thereby rendering people outcaste from Hinduism, forcing them to become Christians. Konkani language was banned. All new converts had to adopt Portuguese names and learn Portuguese language. The Inquisition also severly punished those who failed to meet Christianity’s dogmas. Thousands of natives as well as converts were burnt at the stake during Autos-da-fe, many more were tortured by the Inquisition in its dungeons. The exact numbers of how many perished at the hands of the execrable Goan inquisition have never been ascertained. All records were burnt or lost when the Inquisition was wrapped up in the 19th century. However, Goa attained international infamy on account of its Inquisition. Individual records that have survived (e.g Charles Dellon) indicate the horrendousness of the inquisition.
The first place where the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama first set foot in India was Calicut in Kerala at the dawn of the 16th century. Kerala, at that time, already had an indigenous Christian population of its own. The so-called St. Thomas Christians had been a part of the territory’s social fabric for centuries. Isolated from other Christian territories, St. Thomas Christians followed a great deal of Hindu rites and customs. When the Portuguese landed in Kerala, they saw the native christian community as having heretical beliefs. The Portuguese soon proceeded to outlaw many of the indigenous rites of the St. Thomas Christians. The practice of Syriac/Aramaic languages, as a result of their influence from Christians in West Asia was outlawed. Attempts were made to subjugate the Church under Rome by introducing Latin rites and liturgy. Native literature was burnt and assassination attempts were made against the leaders of native Christians. Pushed against the wall, St. Thomas Christians gathered in strength and swore a solemn oath before the Crucifix that they would never obey the Portuguese again. This prompted the Portuguese to ease off some of the restrictions and make attempts for reconciliation. At the same time, the Jewish community, both native as well as recent emigres from Spain and Portugal, were incessantly harassed by the Portuguese, who destroyed their synagogues and egged the local rulers to eliminate the Jews. The Jews survived only because the Portuguese did not conquer Kerala as they had done with Goa and because the Portuguese did not wish to do anything to harm their lucrative pepper trade.
Now that the Catholic Church is extending apologies, in a way to correct historical wrongs, it is pertinent to expect it to extend an unconditional apology to millions of Indians whose lives were ruined by the policies of the Church.
That is the least that can be done for those who were killed only for their beliefs and those who were forced to renounce the faith of their ancestors. An apology, however, will be as hollow as its words so long as the Church continues to authorize inducements and unleash its proselytizers to harvest their souls for Christ. It is time that the Church should extend acceptance to views about God other than its own and cease this damnable business of conversion.
The Goa Inquisition, Being a Quatercentenary Commemoration Study of the Inquisition in India-Anant Priolkar