Catholic priest arrested over Indian teen's suicide

Church officials believe Madhya Pradesh case is another false claim of religious conversion
Catholic priest arrested over Indian teen's suicide

An Indian farmer returns home with his livestock at sunset in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh on Jan. 5. A non-Christian tribal girl who committed suicide on Jan. 4 was a student at a Catholic school in Jhabua district. (Photo by Gagan Nayar/AFP)

A Catholic priest has been arrested on charges of abetting the suicide of a teenage girl in central India, but church officials are confident he will be cleared of wrongdoing.

Father Prakash Damor of Jhabua Diocese was arrested on Jan. 15, some 11 days after the schoolgirl was found hanging at her village home in Ranapur in Madhya Pradesh state.

Police told media that she left a suicide note saying the 33-year-old priest forced her to change religion and marry him.

Diocesan spokesman Father Rocky Shah told that diocesan officials believe the priest was framed and arrested for no fault of his own. "He will be exonerated in a court of law," he said.

The non-Christian tribal girl was a student in the 11th grade at a Catholic school in Jhabua district. She joined the school last year after completing her 10th grade at another church-run school in Ranapur parish, which covers her village.

Father Damor came to the parish as its assistant vicar a year ago. He belongs to the same indigenous Damor community as the girl, Father Shah said.

Police officer Kailash Chouhan told media that the priest has been charged with the abetment of suicide and also under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

Father Julian Toppo, another diocesan priest, told that the allegations contradicted the Damor community's culture.

"As per the tribal culture, a boy and girl from the Damor community never marry as they are considered brother and sister. It can never happen," he said.

Father Toppo, also a lawyer, said police have "not yet shared with us the suicide note they claimed to have recovered."

Several church leaders suspect the case is similar to previous cooked-up conversion cases slapped against Christian missionaries working among poor indigenous people.

Christians in Madhya Pradesh have recorded 264 fake cases, mostly accusing Christians of conversion charges, in the past 15 years, according to Richard James, a spokesman for Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh, an ecumenical forum for Christians.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled the state for 15 years until last month when the rival Indian National Congress party ousted it in an election and came to power.

An ecumenical delegation met newly appointed Law Minister P.C. Sharma on Jan. 17 and requested him to withdraw all fake conversion cases registered against Christians.

Hard-line Hindu groups in connivance with BJP-supported administrations have brought police cases against Christian missionaries to tarnish the church's image and keep people away from it, James said.

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These groups are working to make India a Hindu-only nation and oppose conversion of Hindus. They also project Christian charitable works as a facade to convert the poor, he added.

The state has a law that criminalizes conversion, punishable with jail terms and fines, if it is done without informing government authorities.

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