Following the stir created by the president of the Mauritius Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation, Somduth Dulthumun, in criticising the Council of Religions saying that it is restricted to a few religions only and that the Catholic Diocèse is imposing its veto on the organisation, the Archbishop of Mauritius, the Bishop of Port Louis and the President of the MSDTF had a meeting to clear up matters and dissipate any misunderstanding. The outcome of the meeting was shared with the media where it was stated that the Diocèse has taken note of the litigation of Somduth Dulthumun and will subsequently inform the chairman of the Council of Religion.
News on Sunday met Father Goupille, who is currently the chairman of the Council of Religions, to know more on the issue- what the objectives of the Council are and what has it achieved up to now and why a protest coming from Dulthumun…
What is the vision and mission of the Council of Religion?
The mission of the Council is to encourage dialogue among the different religions existing in Mauritius. We believe that fear of the other is caused by lack of knowledge. We sometimes fear somebody because he has a different religion but we know very little about his religion. To remove fear and conflict by favouring mutual understanding and respect is the objective of our Council. We believe that inter-religious dialogue will have a major contribution towards building Mauritian unity and nationhood.
Who came forward with such an idea of creating a Council of Religion and with what objectives?
The first meeting of religious leaders was convened in 1994 by Honourable Sheila Bappoo, then minister of Family Welfare. She wanted to have the opinion of religious leaders on problems facing the Mauritian families as a result of industrialisation and the growth of the tourism industry.
Women were working very hard in factories, offices and hotels and this had an impact on family life. In 1995, the then President Cassam Uteem continued with the project of having an inter-religious council to advise him on social problems. In 2001 we became an independent body after the visit of the former Secretary General of United Nations Kofi Anan who strongly encouraged the religions to work together in fighting the pandemic of AIDS in the country. Since, we have been officially registered as an NGO and we have our constitution, rules and our own office in Port Louis.
What is the track record of the Council since its inception?
We have been called to be facilitators in certain conflicts that arose in Mauritian society, as for example recently between the Hare Krishna movement and Mc Donald’s in Phoenix, and on different other occasions. However our main commitment has been to change the mentality of our religious leaders and ask them to cooperate in the national effort towards eradicating AIDS and educating people on the dangers of HIV. This also has to do with building a common platform to boost moral values among young people. We have also started a course at the University of Mauritius on inter-religious dialogue and peace and conflict resolution. We are having our award ceremony on the 3rd of June at the University of Mauritius.
What are the main grudges of your detractors and how far are they unjustified?
Although membership of the Council is opened to all religious organisations, some people have the wrong perception that we restrict our membership or that we give priority to one religion over the other. But this perception is not verified in the reality of our team work and our track record.
Do you think that Mauritians have started to know better the religion of their neighbour through the good services of the Council?
We have a long way to go in order to educate people and give them a proper understanding of the different religions existing in Mauritius. We propose that inter-religious dialogue should start in the primary schools because some children of, for example, the Catholic religion or of the Hindu religion or of the Christian religion who go to school together have never visited a mosque, a church or a temple, although they may pass in front of these religious buildings every day.
What are the positive results which came out after the meeting between the Bishop, Dulthumun and yourself?
The meeting saw the participation of the Bishop of Port Louis Mgr Maurice Piat, the Bishop of Mauritius and Archbishop of the Indian Ocean, Ian Ernest and Somduth Dulthumun. I was informed by Mgr Piat that a few suggestions were made as to the functioning and membership of the Council. As soon as I receive these suggestions in writing I will share them with the members of the Council at our next plenary meeting. We never take decisions individually; we always think and reflect as a group before we make any statement. The proof of this was our common declaration on the legalisation of abortion last year.
What were your true feelings when you came face to face with Dulthumun?
I have had the privilege to visit the headquarters of the Mauritius Sanathan Darma Temples Federation last year when we organised the visit of religious organisations and sanctuaries in Port Louis with the support of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority. We received a warm welcome from Somduth Dulthumun and his staff. Although on some issues I may not share his opinions, I respect him as a Mauritian citizen and head of a religious federation.
The question arose recently that Religion should not be mixed with Politics. What are your comments? Do you think that one should abide by the saying: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God?
You quote Jesus in the Gospel: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. To understand Jesus’s reply we have to place it in the context of the time. His native land, Palestine, was a colony of the Romans. They were under the power and authority of Caesar the Emperor who lived in Rome and has appointed Pontius Pilate as governor of this province of the empire. Caesar was an emperor who was worshipped as god himself. All the people who lived under the rule of Caesar had to worship him as a divine person. The traditional Jews of Jesus’s time rejected this practice because they believed in one only God, Yahweh. Yahweh had revealed himself to the Jews as from the time of Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament.
To worship Caesar was therefore a sin of idolatry. The Jews at the time of Jesus expected that God would send them a king of their own, the Messiah, who would overturn Caesar and his rule. But Jesus refused to be a “messiah king” who would exercise political power. He preached extensively about the Kingdom of God which is not a political kingdom but a kingdom of service, love and forgiveness which is open to all nations of the world. So Jesus clearly separates political power from religion.
In the centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christian communities refused to worship Caesar and were persecuted. Later on in the history of the Church and after the emperor Constantine became a Christian, the Christians gradually moved away from this distinction between Church and State. In the Middle Ages there was a saying in Latin that the people of each state must follow the religion of the king. Christianity was imposed on the people; it was the religion of the king. This was not in accordance with the teaching of Jesus himself.
With the French revolution in 1789 and thanks also to the thinking of many philosophers, the principle of separation between church and state was rediscovered and is now widely accepted in most catholic countries. It is interesting to note that Cardinal Jean Margéot in his pastoral letter written in 1977 at the time of the general elections of independent Mauritius (“Foi et politique, Tensions et Unité”) publicly stated that the catholic church in Mauritius would not back up any political party and was against the creation of a “Christian democratic” party, although many faithful of the catholic church wanted to found a catholic party.
The respect of the principle of separation between church and state is also closely linked to another fundamental principle which is freedom of conscience. The decision of Cardinal Margeot to refuse any attempt at creating a catholic party contributed very much to peace and unity in our land. Each catholic was free to choose his or her party according to his or her conscience. This is essential if we want democracy to work and if we want to avoid the danger that political oppositions become religious conflicts.