ucanews.com reporters, Hyderabad and KochiUpdated: July 20, 2016 07:12 AM GMT
Three upper-caste priests in India have been arrested for the kidnapping of Bishop Prasad Gallela of Cuddapah who is a Dalit, a term that is associated with the former "untouchable class." (Photo supplied)
A group of Catholics in southern India has condemned what it called the church hierarchy's "silence" after three priests belonging to an upper-caste group allegedly had a Dalit bishop kidnapped and assaulted, but a church official said they have already taken action.
The South India Dalit Catholic Association circulated a statement on July 16 condemning the "silence of the official church on the kidnapping and assault of Bishop Prasad Gallela by three priests of the Cudappa Diocese on 25 April."
The circular comes a month after Jesuit Father A.X.J. Bosco, a leading Dalit activist in the region, sent an open letter to the president of the national Catholic bishops' conference, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis of Trivandrum, pointing out the "significant silence."
The Dalit association's general secretary Esuka Jayaraj and Father Bosco told ucanews.com that the regional church is highly polarized between those belong to upper caste groups and Dalits, the former untouchable castes within Indian society.
But Father Ery Marianna, the vicar general of Cudappa Diocese, said such allegations are misplaced. "The bishops have taken a stand and the accused priests have been suspended. A police investigation is also on," Father Marianna said.
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the national Catholic bishops' conference, said the issue is sensitive and multi-faceted. He also pointed out that regional bishops have made statements condemning the incident.
"The conference strongly condemns the attack and wants the culprits punished in an exemplary manner," he said adding that the local church and its authorities have taken the necessary canonical steps against the attackers.
The national bishop's conference "does not interfere in the administration and jurisdictional matters of individual dioceses," he added.
The Dalit association’s statement asked the bishops and hierarchy "to speak out" and was signed by 12 organizations including the Montfort Social Institute, the Jesuit Social Center and the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace.
Discrimination is prime issue
Father Bosco said the diocese has been in trouble for at least a decade because of caste divisions among its 80,000 Catholics, 70 percent of them coming from the Dalit community. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam in the hope of avoiding deep-seated discrimination though in reality the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.
While the bishop, like most priests in the diocese, is a Dalit, it is people from higher caste groups that traditionally make decisions, he said.
Police investigations revealed that the bishop was attacked by people hired by three priests of a higher caste because the bishop refused to follow their directions on the appointment of a diocesan procurator.
A church official, requesting anonymity, said the priests who engineered the attack used to be friends with the Dalit bishop. They split over a disagreement on position. The bishop's statement, released after the attack, confessed that "money and power" were the cause of the violence.
Father Bosco said even a minor attack on a Catholic priest or a nun would have resulted in street protests and a robust follow-up by the church hierarchy while this one has been passed over. "Why is it an attack on a bishop is ignored?" he said.
Those from the Dalit and indigenous communities together form 70 percent of the total Catholic population in India. Out of about 200 active bishops in India, only nine are from the Dalit community.
Dalits in India, irrespective of religion, are often the target of disempowerment, oppression and persecution despite the Indian constitution abolishing caste discrimination and laws making "untouchability" a punishable offence.