Welby to Visit Massacre Site in Tour of South Asian Churches

Jallianwala Bagh (Wikimedia Commons)

Archbishop Justin Welby will participate this September in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Amritsar, according to a public statement released on Friday. The ceremony will be part of a 10-day visit to the Churches of North and South India, member provinces of the Anglican Communion.  Welby will become the first Archbishop of Canterbury to visit the site of the massacre, which is widely seen as a pivotal event in the demise of the British colonial system.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, as it is most often known in India, took place on April 13, 1919, when British troops under the command of acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, an Anglican, fired on a group of unarmed peaceful protesters in a public garden. According to official casualty reports, 379 people were killed and 1,100 wounded. Amritsar is the also the site of the Golden Temple, the holiest place of the Sikh religion, and some in the religiously mixed crowd had also gathered to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi.

Though initially lauded by the House of Lords, the massacre eventually provoked popular condemnation within Britain, and was denounced by then-MP Winston Churchill as “unutterably monstrous.” Dyer was censured by a Parliamentary commission in 1920. It turned many moderate Indians against British rule, and famous poet Rabinadath Tagore resigned his knighthood in protest. Most significantly, the massacre led to the launch of the non-resistance movement by Mahatma Gandhi. This widespread series of non-violent protests united Indians across caste and religious lines in a their eventually successful push for national independence.

The failure of the British government to issue a formal apology for the event is a longstanding Indian grievance. The description of the event by Queen Elizabeth II “as difficult episodes in our past” during a state visit in 1997 resulted in protests. Last April, just before the 100th anniversary of the event, prime minister Theresa May said “the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history,” in a parliamentary speech. The statement, however, was widely regarded as falling short of a full apology.

The Hindustan Times reported last week that Welby may issue a formal apology during his visit, citing a tweet issued by him last April that seemed to promise a fuller statement than what the prime minister was able to provide during his coming visit: “You can expect a fulsome and very transparent account of what happened with the moral implications as a Christian leader. It is something we regard with real seriousness as a moment of recognizing some of the sins of our history on order to move forward with goodwill and mutual flourishing.” The archbishop’s inter-religious affairs adviser, Dr. Richard Sudworth, also stated last week that Welby’s statement at Amritsar would include a “transparent account of what happened. ”

Archbishop Welby’s time in South Asia will begin with a visit to Sri Lanka, “where he will stand in solidarity with Christians and the victims of the Easter bombings,” a series of attacks by radical Islamists that resulted in the death of 259 people, mostly at three churches during Easter Day services.

Last month, the Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, released an independent review on the rise of Christian persecution that had been commissioned by the British foreign secretary. His report cited an increase in attacks against Christians across India, and noted that “the growth of militant nationalism has been the key driver of Christian persecution in South Asia.” The claim has been associated by many with the rightward turn of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist BJP party.

Sudworth told The Hindustan Times, “The archbishop will be going to listen and see what the situation is for those Christian communities. What we are encouraged by is that the Indian Constitution article 25 does give freedom of religion and belief and that is something we would be hoping to affirm and hear about as we travel around the country.”

He noted that the archbishop does not plan to meet with Prime Minister Modi, but said that if the opportunity became available, “there will be things he would want to share.” He added, though, that Welby would not want to “lecture another country.”

The archbishop’s visit will include meetings with Anglican and multifaith leaders in various cities across the country and will begin in Kerala, whose Christians claim to have received the faith handed down from St. Thomas the Apostle.

Archbishop Justin said: “My prayer is that this visit will first and foremost provide opportunities for me to pray with local Christians; secondly, I want to listen to the stories of local people, to hear the joys and challenges they face in their daily life; and, finally, I am looking forward to visiting key places of worship and significance. India has a long and distinguished Christian history, going back as early as the first century when Saint Thomas is said to have travelled to Kerala. I am looking forward to learning from the Church in India and sharing in their worship.”


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