By Joop Koopman
“The Church presents itself as being at the service of all.”
India is a country of more than 1.2 billion people, with Christians accounting for only some 3 percent of the population, including close to 19 million Catholics. Despite its relatively small size, the Indian Church has a disproportionate impact on Indian society through education and social services. With the ascension to power of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, there has been a rising tide of violent attacks on Christians as well as Muslims. Rejection of faiths dismissed as foreign imports adds to the wounds of both Christian and Muslims of low caste background—known as dalits—who are denied government benefits awarded to low-caste Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhist to compensate for centuries of discrimination by the dominant Hindu culture.
To address the needs of dalits within the Church—where low-caste faithful have also suffered various forms of discrimination, despite the fact that 12 million out of India’s 19 million Catholics are dalits—the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has just released a major document proclaiming that “if there are any dual practices based on caste discrimination, such practices should be stopped forthwith.”
Recently, representatives of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international Catholic charity, travelled to India and spoke with four of the six bishops of Odisha state. In 2008, Hindu mob violence in the community of Kandhamal in Odisha State killed some 100 Christians. Only slowly Christian defendants are being exonerated from the charge of having provoked the rampage.
What are the prospects for Christian and Muslim dalits being granted government benefits?
Bishop Aplinar Senapati, CM, of Rayagada: Our fight continues on the national, CBCI and state level. I hope and pray our government will relent.
Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhapur: We have been fighting for these rights for the past 60 years. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will respond to this injustice.
Bishop Niranjan Sual Singh of Sambalpur: The primary, hidden reason the government opposes benefits for Christian dalits is a concern that once low-caste Christian can take advantage of affirmative action with regard to education and access to civil service jobs, many Hindu dalits will convert to Christianity.
How is the Indian Church dealing with the challenge of itself fully welcoming dalits?
Bishop Singh: The Church must welcome these new believers. Unfortunately, in many places, dalit Christians are not given equal opportunities. For instance, dalit children are barred from being altar servers or dalits cannot be lectors; Mass is sometimes segregated as are cemeteries. Dalits are often not considered for leadership positions in the Church; and some communities oppose marriage of dalits with high-caste Catholics.
Does the Church see genuine opportunities for dialogue with moderate Hindus as a tool to combat Hindu extremism?
Archbishop John Barwa, SVD, of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar: There is an openness among the Hindu population at large. Of course, we need dialogue more than the Hindu majority. We have to take the initiative and demonstrate our willingness to dialogue. The Church presents itself as being at the service of all. The Church can become like a lamp on top of a mountain, a light for all to see.
Bishop Singh: We are seen as a Church that creates harmony among faiths. For example, in the wake of the 2008 killings, Christians did not take revenge. That is our identity and it makes the Church a powerful witness.
Does the Church have confidence that, in the end, justice will be done in Odisha?
Bishop Barwa: Justice is slowly being done. The scars will take a long time to heal and evaporate. Prior to the massacre in Kandhamal, there was peace in this region; now trust has been broken; our people cannot trust those who burned down our houses and churches. Building up trust and confidence will take much longer than the reconstruction of homes and churches.