Dalit Christians accuse Indian Church of discrimination

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By Bijay Kumar Minj, New Delhi

A group of Dalit Christians in India’s Tamil Nadu state have staged a protest ahead of the consecration of Bishop Arulselvam Rayappan in Salem.

The July 23 protest, organized by the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) in front of the District Collector’s Office in Salem, condemned the “untouchability” practiced in the country, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

More than 100 protesters also met the district collector and presented a memorandum complaining about the caste discrimination against Dalits in the Catholic Church.

They urged the government of Tamil Nadu and the federal government to take action to end discrimination against Dalit Christians.

“We have taken to the streets as our repeated demand to appoint bishops of Dalit origin in Tamil Nadu have failed. Our plight remains unheard and ignored by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church,” Mary John, president of the DCLM, told UCA News.

“We want the consecration of the new bishop, Arulselvam Rayappan, in Salem scheduled for Aug. 4 to be stopped until a Dalit archbishop and bishops are appointed in the remaining vacancies in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. The protesters demand Bishop Peter Abir of Sultanpet, the apostolic administrator of Pondicherry-Cuddalore Archdiocese, go back to his diocese.

“Nepotism and discrimination are happening, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, where only non-Dalit bishops and archbishops have been appointed during the past 15 years.

“There is only one Dalit bishop in the 18 Catholic dioceses in the region even though Dalits comprise about 75 percent of the Catholics here, making their representation negligible. This situation has continued for decades.”

The protesters also appealed to Pope Francis to intervene to end caste discrimination in the Indian Church.

The DCLM has been raising this issue for the past three decades with numerous letters and appeals to the Indian Catholic hierarchy and apostolic nuncios.

“We have been also constantly making representations to the Vatican. We took to public protests to show our agony and anger, hoping to raise the consciousness of the Church over caste injustice,” John said.

“During the past one year especially, we have staged more concerted public protests and street rallies because we realized that our silence, pious hope and prayerful appeals for decades have only been defeated. With all this we hoped that at least now our demand would be met with sensitivity and sensibility.”

Bishop Sebastianappan Singaroyan of Salem told UCA News that “we came to know through the local newspaper that there was a small group protesting at the district collector’s office but more than that we have no other information.”

Father L. Sahayaraj, deputy secretary of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, told UCA News that he was not aware of any protest. Regarding the Dalit Christian issue, he said: “I have nothing to say on that subject.”

Dalits, or untouchables, are the lowest caste in Hindu society. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though in reality the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.

The word “Dalit” means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-tier Hindu caste system. Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this marginalized community. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are of Dalit and tribal origin.

Credit: UCA News

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