New Delhi: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken strong exception to a Catholic Archbishop who warned that "nationalist forces" could take over the nation.
Archbishop Macwan of Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, kicked off the row on Nov. 21 by sending a controversial letter to all bishops in the state.
The letter warned that nationalists had become increasingly politically dominant in India and were on the "verge" of holding power nationwide.
This was seen as a clear reference to the highly nationalist, pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On Dec. 9 and 14 elections are due to be held in western India's Gujarat state, where the BJP has ruled since 1995.
The BJP rules nationally as well as in a majority of India's 29 states.
Prime Minister Modi responded that he was "shocked" that a man of religion was effectively trying to direct Catholics on how to vote.
Modi was addressing a public meeting in Gandhinagar on Dec. 2 ahead of the election in his home state.
Observers believe the state poll result will influence the 2019 national elections.
Archbishop Macwan, without specifically naming any political party in his letter, sought prayers to help voters elect people who would remain "faithful" to India's secular constitution and respect human rights.
Critics of the BJP and hardline Hindu groups supporting it, argue there has been a decline in religious tolerance in India and a push to enshrine Hindu dominance under Modi
Modi did not name Archbishop Macwan when responding to the comments.
However, Modi said pointedly that those issuing religious edicts against nationalists should consider the effort his government made to release two Catholic priests kidnapped by Islamic terrorists.
The Prime Minister said his government safely returned Salesian Father Thomas Uzhunnalil in September, 18-months after he was kidnapped in Yemen.
He said his government also successfully worked for the release of Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar in September 2015, eight months after suspected Taliban militants abducted him in Afghanistan.
Archbishop Macwan was unavailable for comment on the prime minister's remarks.
The Gujarat Election Commission on Nov. 25 asked Archbishop Macwan to explain why his letter should not be viewed as a violation of electoral conduct laws.
The prelate said he had only issued a request for prayers with no bad intentions against any particular political party.
A spokesperson of the Delhi Archdiocese, Father Savari Muthu, told ucanews.com that there should not be any controversy regarding the letter because the prelate had already issued a clarification.
The archbishop had expressed concern without naming any political party, Father Muthu said.