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BRENTWOOD, England (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Catholic church in England is facing backlash for displaying Hindu, Buddhist and African idols in front of the altar for a service marking Pope Francis' pan-religious day of prayer.
On Thursday morning, the diocese of Brentwood tweeted a picture of the idols of Shiva and Buddha, alongside an icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd and an African carving advertising an "interfaith prayer service" to be held at the Church of the English Martyrs, Hornchurch, at 7 p.m.
"Pope Francis has appealed for a Day of Prayer and Fasting and Works of Charity for believers of all religions on 14 May, to implore God to help humanity overcome the coronavirus pandemic," the diocesan website announced.
"In response to this appeal, Fr. Britto Belevendran, chair of the Interfaith Committee, will be leading an interfaith prayer service at 7 p.m. on Thursday 14 May (live streaming)."
"He says: 'I invite the parishes and friends of other faiths to come together to pray for the healing of the globe and our fragile humanity from the present pandemic," it continued. "Please join in in whatever ways you can.'"
Within minutes, hundreds of outraged Catholics bombarded the diocese's Twitter thread accusing Fr. Belevendran of idolatry, syncretism, sacrilege and the heresy of indifferentism.
Catholic commenters hit out at the parish priest: "Shame on you." "Willfully breaking the first commandment." "Repent!!! You will suffer hellfire for this!" "This is sacrilege, and I will be contacting your diocesan chancellor."
Not a single comment was positive or in favor of the interfaith service.
Within less than an hour of Church Militant contacting the priest for comment, the tweet with the photograph of the idols was deleted.
"It is ironic that this happened in a church named in honour of the English martyrs whose feast day was only celebrated a week ago," Catholic journalist Caroline Farrow told Church Militant.
"These priests, religious, laymen and women gave their lives so that Catholicism could be preserved. While it may have been motivated by good intentions, this act of blasphemy nonetheless spits upon their selfless sacrifice," she lamented.
The U.K. campaign director for CitizenGO told Church Militant she is running a campaign attempting to persuade the government to reopen churches: "But you have to wonder that if idol worship is what they are going to be used for, perhaps it's better they remain closed."
You have to wonder what on earth the parish priest was thinking of allowing a 10-armed pagan idol to sit atop an altar. Worse still, that whoever was running the diocesan Twitter account appeared to agree and endorse this act of sacrilege. The bishop needs to be alert to the spiritual dangers of this, all of those involved need a course on remedial Catholicism and some serious reparation needs to be made.
An Indian convert to Catholicism told Church Militant she was heartbroken by the idolatry: "My ancestors worshipped these idols and I am grateful to the Catholic missionaries who came and preached the Gospel to my ancestors, delivering us from worshipping such grotesque images of wood and stone."
"Father Belevendran says he is from India," she said. "Doesn't he know how the caste system of Hinduism oppressed us for 3,000 years and only Christianity liberated us? Doesn't he know the idol he placed on the altar is that of Shiva — the Hindu god of destruction?"
"Is the Bishop of Brentwood so racist that he believes Catholicism is only for white English people and not for brown-skinned Indians like me and so I need to go back to Hinduism?" she asked. "The image of Shiva as Nataraja on the altar conveys the Indian conception of the never-ending cycle of time, which is completely contrary to the biblical linear concept of time."
Church Militant wrote a second time to Fr. Belevendran asking why the post with the picture of idols was suddenly pulled from the diocesan Twitter feed, asking him why he chose to reject the uniqueness of Jesus, the Son of God, and "install a statue of Shiva (Nataraja) the god of destruction on a table before the altar." As of press time, Church Militant received no response.
Brentwood diocese under Bp. Alan Williams is continuing to promote Pope Francis' pan-religious day of prayer. Another tweet invites Catholics to join in Holy Mass "in response to Pope Francis' call for interfaith Day of Prayer."
Meanwhile, following Church Militant's report on Catholics condemning the pontiff's day of prayer as "blasphemy" and "sacrilege," the pontiff has responded asserting that he is not promoting "religious relativism" but human fraternity.
"Perhaps there will be someone who will say: 'This is religious relativism and it cannot be done.' But how can we not pray to the Father of all?" Francis asked in the Santa Marta chapel on Thursday.
"Everyone prays as he knows, how he can, as he has received from his own culture. We are not praying against each other, this religious tradition against this, no," the pontiff added. "We are all united as human beings, as brothers, praying to God, according to our culture, according to our own tradition, according to our beliefs, but brothers and praying to God. This is the important thing."