Thursday, May 31, 2007

INTERVIEW: Oscar Fernandes, Mangalore

May 30, 2007

UCAN Interview - 'My Faith Sustains Me In Politics'

Oscar Fernandes of Udupi, Mangalore

MANGALORE, India (UCAN) -- Compromising one's values will not advance one's political life much, according to Oscar Fernandes, a successful Catholic politician in India.

The 66-year-old federal minister from Mangalore, in the southern state of Karnataka, says his Catholic faith has sustained him during his 35 years in politics.

During that time, he has guided his Congress party as its national general secretary. Recently, he shared with UCA News how he lives his Catholic faith as an Indian politician. The interview follows:

UCA NEWS: What motivated you to enter politics?

OSCAR FERNANDES: It was my Catholic faith that motivated me. I was one of 12 children in my family, and I grew up with a strong Catholic background. As a child I was an altar boy, and as a youth I was active in Church activities. This active involvement with the Church really helped me to think bigger and get into politics. Moreover, I had over a dozen votes in my house itself (he laughs).

As a public figure, do you see yourself more as a Catholic or a politician?

I am both. I never separate my Catholic identity from politics. My faith is personal, and I never had to sacrifice my Catholic identity in politics. However busy I was, I never missed my family prayers, although I miss Sunday Mass sometimes. I believe that my religious identity is more a being and living, and it has been inseparable from my public life.

Has being a Catholic in a predominantly Hindu country helped your political life?

I feel, yes. India is a great nation with secular ideals. Here people do not discriminate against you in the name of religion; only politicians do. People are carried away by how you live your religious and personal life, rather than which god you believe in. I never hide my religious identity anywhere and never felt let down because of this. In fact, political life has been smooth and progressive because I believe in Jesus.

Who is Jesus for you?

Jesus has been a hero for me. He has been the greatest public servant, a revolutionary leader and selfless social activist. He is my role model and motivator. My religion believes in giving rather than receiving, sharing rather than bearing, and helping rather than being helped. I believe my political career was a special call and vocation for me.

Politics and politicians are generally disliked. How can you make a difference in Indian politics?

I believe in witnessing rather than preaching. I hardly preach Christianity, but the people of India know that I am a Christian. They see me praying, they see me happy and content, and they know that I love them. My principles are based on Christian values and I live them. I came into politics in 1972 by winning municipal council elections, and ever since I have lived a Catholic life and political career.

Christians are, by and large, apathetic about politics. But of late, thanks to the efforts of Catholic Sabha (council), hundreds of Catholics have contested panchayat (village council) elections and won. Quite a number of Catholics from various states have also come into national politics. So their thinking is changing.

What is Catholic Sabha? What were its objectives and what has it done so far?

I was one of the founders of (Mangalore diocese's) Catholic Sabha, which has completed some three decades. It was started to protest an anti-conversion bill introduced in parliament in 1979. Later, it became one of the strongest Catholic lay movements. It has provided a platform for many Catholics to enter politics. It has helped many youths to get into civil service, encouraged Catholics to contest panchayat elections and get involved in other social-service activities. We now manage a special school and rehabilitation center for mentally retarded children. Though I am more active in national politics, I have never ignored the Catholic Sabha, my first step in politics.

What are the challenges a committed Christian faces in politics?

It is embarrassing to be amid politicians who believe in mere politics and compromise without scruples to further their political future. But I have neither compromised my Catholic identity nor sacrificed the values I inherited from my devout parents. And those values have been my strength. In politics, if you do not assert your identity, you will get nowhere.

Christians now face persecution in India. As a Catholic minister, how do you respond to this?

I think Christians are luckier and safer in India than in any other country. Indians are so accommodating and hospitable. India has welcomed and supported different religions and faiths. How can we say India is a bad place for Christianity? The problem is politically motivated and never culturally rooted. It is caused by aggressiveness from both sides -- politicians looking for an issue for vote banks and some Christians acting like a politician to push their faith. Both are not correct.

Christianity has to spread through Christian witnessing rather than street preaching. I survived in Indian politics for the past three decades as a practicing Catholic. I was never persecuted for my faith.

You always appear in public with your wife, never alone. Does this ever hinder you?

It is never a bother, but my strength. We have been married for 25 years and never have we stayed separately. She is with me in all my success and failures, good days and bad days. Is it not Christian witness?

I am what I am because of my parents and I want my children also to say that. So we are together and we nurture our children with a good Catholic background. Children will get settled and they will go. But a wife can never leave like that. I believe if we are successful in our family life, we will be successful everywhere. And if we pray together and are strong in our faith, we can move mountains.

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