Police in central India have arrested a Catholic priest, nun and lay worker accused of sexually abusing a young girl, an allegation Church officials say is just another instance of harassment they face in a state run by a pro-Hindu party. Father Joseph Dhanaswami, principal of Jyoti Mission High School of Ambikapur diocese in Chhattisgarh state, along with hostel warden Samaritan Sister Christ Maria and a maid were arrested Sept. 11 following a complaint by the mother of a fourth grade student. Kirtan Rathore, additional superintendent of police, told ucanews.com that the arrest was "based on an initial medical report that suggested injuries to the private parts of the girl." "We are investigating. The picture will be clear only after a detailed probe," he said. However, Church leaders denied the charge saying the three were arrested in a bid to tarnish the image of the Church and create mistrust among people. Father Antony Bara, vicar general of Ambikapur, told ucanews.com that the arrests were made following pressure from right-wing Hindu activists. He also said activists of the Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu organization and youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), staged a protest and pelted stones at the school, destroying a Marian statue. Father Bara said the girl was staying in the Church-run hostel and was suffering from a skin disease, including around her private parts. Since she was not feeling comfortable, she sought permission from the hostel warden to go home to stay with her mother. Before letting her go, the helper at the hostel gave her a bath. When the girl went home, her mother lodged a police complaint accusing the priest, nun and the helper of sexual abuse, he added. Bishop Patras Minj of Ambikapur in a statement said that the arrests were a clear case of misuse of administrative powers as police officials were clearly aware of the false charges. He also blamed police of acting under pressure to tarnish Christians. Meanwhile, the Cross Shrine of St. George Orthodox Church in Haldibadi, just 10 kilometers from the school, was vandalized. "They managed to break one window of the sanctuary and attempted to defile the holy place by throwing stones inside it," said Father Joshi Varghese, the church's vicar. Also, the cross fixed at the top of the shrine was broken as were glass panes and floor and wall tiles. Chhattisgarh was created in 2000, when it was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, and both have since 2003 been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political arm of hard-line groups wanting to create a Hindu theocratic state.
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The Church says it has since been continuously on the receiving end of anti-Christian harassment. The majority of the region's some 110 million people are Hindus. Christians form less than 1 percent of this number and the Church is engaged primarily in education and health care among the poor. Church critics, mostly extremist Hindu groups, allege that Church work for the social betterment of the poor is a tactic for conversion.