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Vatican focuses on Dalits in lead-up to Week of Prayer

Calls casteism an "acute doctrinal issue in the country

Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
Vatican City

January 18, 2013

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The plight of Dalit Christians will take center stage next week in Catholic communities throughout the world as Christians pray for Christian unity.

The Vatican has chosen to focus on the discrimination suffered by low caste Indians in its materials for the yearly Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The week has been celebrated since 1908 between the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, from January 18 to 23, to promote prayer and ecumenical encounters between Christian communities.

The resources were prepared by the Student Christian Movement of India, which marks its centennial anniversary, in collaboration with the All India Catholic University Federation and the National Council of Churches in India.

The materials include Bible readings, reflections, suggestions for prayer and a blueprint for an ecumenical prayer service.

The introduction to the booklet, which has been published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, explains “in a context of great injustice to Dalits in India and in the Church, the search for visible unity cannot be disassociated from the dismantling of casteism and the lifting up of contributions to unity by the poorest of the poor.”

Almost 80 percent of Indian Christians have a Dalit background.

The Vatican department for ecumenism, in its introduction, admits that “Christian disunity in India within churches and between them is further accentuated by the caste system,” which, “like apartheid, racism and nationalism,” poses a severe challenge for the unity of Christians in India.

“As a church-dividing issue, casteism is consequently an acute doctrinal issue.”

While “discrimination against the Dalits is legitimized on the basis of religion and notions of ritual purity and pollution,” the biblical texts proposed by the resources stress God's “rejection of rituals and sacrifices which were impoverished by a lack of concern for justice.”

The booklet includes texts of Indian Noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore and a testimony from a Dalit woman who survived the anti-Christian attacks of Hindu extremists that took place in 2008 in Khandhamal, in Orissa state.

According to the booklet, “the toll of the violence was 59 deaths, 115 Christian churches were destroyed, homes damaged, and 50 thousand homeless Christians sought refuge in the forests and later in refugee camps set up by the Indian government.”

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