The Roman Catholic Mission School in Sarangloya village in Khunti Diocese. (Photo supplied)
The Catholic Church in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand has dismissed reports of a government school being used for mass conversion activities as “false, malafide and intended to sow hatred and division in society.”
The reports appeared in local print and electronic media last week, raising suspicions against the minority Christian community.
“There is no doubt that a group of people along with certain sections of media are running a campaign to tarnish the image of the Catholic Church in Jharkhand, which is unacceptable and condemnable,” Auxiliary Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas of Ranchi told UCA News.
He said that in the latest case from Sarangloya village in Khunti Diocese, the Church has documents to prove its case but the media did not even bother to contact church officials.
After news reports appeared, Bishop Mascarenhas and Bishop Binay Kandulna of Khunti, under whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction the village falls, visited the school accused of hosting conversions and met local people to ascertain facts.
The Roman Catholic Mission School was founded in 1936 by a few Catholics and later named St. Joseph’s School. Classes were held inside a small church building until 1962, when 24 local Catholic families came together and bought 35 acres of land after the British-era zamindari system run by landed aristocracy came to an end.
The Catholic Church always practices love and peace and doesn't believe in divide and rule politics and in polarization
The present school building was built on this land after the families requested the Church to teach their children.
“The families are the sole owners of the land and only they decide what they wish to have on their land. In the course of time they handed over this school under the care of fathers,” a Catholic Church press release said.
The school is a privately owned minority school recognized by the government and is part of the midday meal scheme but receives no other aid, the press release added.
Bishop Mascarenhas, former secretary-general of the Indian Catholic bishops’ conference, said: “We requested the concerned media to apologize and remove the content. The Catholic Church always practices love and peace and doesn't believe in divide and rule politics and in polarization. We are open to dialogue and if required legal help will also be considered in the latest incidents committed by some groups.”
Ratan Tirkey, a former member of Jharkhand's tribal advisory committee, told UCA News: “Years back when missionaries came to Jharkhand, then undivided Bihar, our forefathers gave their land to the Church for the development of tribal people in the fields of education, health and law, which was the need of the hour.”
Tirkey, a Catholic tribal leader, said the practice of donating land to the Church wasn’t unique to Jharkhand. It was also practiced in other neighboring states to achieve the socioeconomic development of tribal people with the help of the Church.
“Christians remain a minority in the state. Blaming them for religious conversion activities is baseless and influenced by certain political parties,” he said.
Father Bishu Aind, dean of Khunti Diocese, told UCA News that “for the past few years the campaign against the missionaries has intensified as some political parties along with a few vested interest groups did not want the socioeconomic conditions of tribal people to improve.”
An anti-conversion law passed in 2017 by Jharkhand state bans change of religion by force or allurement. The guilty may face up to three years' imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$800). Anyone wishing to convert has to inform top district officials or face prosecution.
Jharkhand has 1.4 million Christians out of a total population of 33 million, mostly tribal people.