African students stage a demonstration against increasing attacks on them in New Delhi in May 2016. The Indian church is looking at new ways to integrate African Catholics. (Photo by IANS)
Thousands of young people from Africa, many of them Catholics, migrate each year to major Indian cities, mainly to study, creating a new challenge for the Indian church.
"The challenges are more external than pastoral," said Father Martin Puthussery, secretary of the Commission of Migrants in Bangalore Archdiocese. He said Indian society is prejudiced against Africans, seeing them as wanton drug peddlers.
"It is difficult for them to rent accommodation because of the negative attitudes towards them and those who do find accommodation are almost always overcharged," the Jesuit priest said.
Bangalore, where Father Puthussery is based, has at least 3,000 African students and a third of them are Catholic, he said.
Even though there are no official statistics on the number of Africans in the country, a rough estimate suggests that there are 50,000 Nigerians in India mostly in New Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.
The prejudice against Africans in Indian society cannot be helped but Africans are encouraged to join in with parish activities, Father Puthussery said. "We deliberately try to integrate them and help remove social prejudice," he said.
African migrants can be English-speaking or French-speaking and they come from a variety of nations, Father Puthussery said. In Bangalore, there is a special team to attend to their needs consisting of pastors and priests either from Africa or who have worked there.
The pastoral care of Africans is something new for the Indian church as the migrants have only started to come in the past decade. The majority are estimated to be in and around New Delhi to access education and employment opportunities but Delhi Archdiocese does not have a department to take care of them.
Delhi Archdiocese spokesperson Father Savarimutthu Sankar said that parishes take care of Africans but "We do not have any special programs for them," he said.
While Bangalore Archdiocese has teams working with African Catholics they could only find some 200 of the estimated 1,000 living in the city, Father Puthussery said.
"Most of them are single and many are not interested in coming to Sunday programs as they would rather enjoy their day off differently. We encourage them to attend local parishes so they become part of the community," he said.
Major cities like Chennai and Hyderabad also have small pockets of African students. However, the Indian bishops conference is yet to develop any guidelines on how to best integrate and welcome them.
Africans on their own
Africans say they prefer to follow their own worship practices even though they look to the Catholic Church for their pastoral needs.
"We have our own way of worshiping or saying prayers so we do it separately," Oge Nnadi, from Nigeria, told ucanews.com.
Nnadi, along with three friends, founded the African Fellowship in 2009 in Our Lady of Graces Catholic Parish in the Vikaspuri area of the national capital.
Around 200 nationals from African countries, including Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, gather on Thursdays for prayers under the banner of African Fellowship. "We are purely Catholics and follow the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church in India but we want to follow the African style of worship," Nnadi said.
Their two-hour-long fellowship includes saying the rosary, group prayer, Bible study and preaching, all led by young laypeople. They also share any information from the parish.
Chris Ndukaihe, co-founder of African Fellowship, told ucanews.com that they used to visit the church for Sunday Mass and "used to meet a few African Catholics there."
"We thought that we have to come together as Africans and have a prayer session. We spoke to the then parish priest and he gave us a place in the basement of the church to have our prayers on Thursday," said Ndukaihe, a Nigerian.
"African people are very social and they like gathering in groups to sing, dance and socialize" but often they are forced to live a secluded life because they are not accepted in Indian society, he said.
Ndukaihe said Africans live in several parishes in Delhi Archdiocese but the largest number live in Vikaspuri.
Father Deepak Soreng, parish priest of Vikaspuri, told ucanews.com that the African Catholics attend common Sunday services but "have a separate prayer service on Tuesdays and Thursdays evenings to include African Christians from other denominations."
The priest said that he does not preside over their prayers as they conduct it. "I go there only when they call me on special occasions like Easter and Christmas," he added.
Nnadi said that the involvement of some of Africans in crime has "given the community a bad name and every one of us becomes the victim as we are always looked with suspicion."
According to 2014 statistics from Delhi's Tihar Jail, out of 366 foreign prisoners languishing in the jail, 134 are from Nigeria.
Nnadi said that the African high commission takes care of their issues. "We have never requested a platform from the Catholic Church for addressing our grievances but we would welcome it."
Racial problems in India
African nationals have been on the receiving end of prejudice for the past few years. Denise, who goes by one name, is from Nigeria and has been staying in India for 10 years. He said that his community faces financial, racial and legal problems.
"People do not like us here. Sometimes, when I am walking, somebody hits me from behind or shouts at me," Denise said.
A series of attacks against Africans started when a group of four Nigerian students were beaten at a mall in Greater Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, on March 27 following the death of a 17-year-old local boy.
The locals alleged that the boy died after he was forced to inhale drugs by some Nigerians. All five attackers were arrested.
On March 29, a 25-year-old Kenyan woman was attacked and beaten while traveling in a cab in the same area. A police complaint was filed but no one was arrested.