Dalit Christians, activists and civil society protest in New Delhi on Dec. 4, 2018, demanding that the Indian government give them the same rights as enjoyed by their Hindu counterparts. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
Dalit Catholic leaders across India have threatened to start a new church if their demand to end casteism and discrimination against Dalits in the Catholic Church is not met.
Around 30 speakers and 150 participants attended a virtual meeting on Sept. 5 organized by six Dalit Christian organizations from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
“If the Vatican does not immediately remove the discriminatory process of bishop selection that neglects qualified Dalit priests, we could announce our own Indian Dalit Catholic Church or the Indian Dalit Catholic Rite,” Franklin Caesar Thomas, coordinator of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), told UCA News.
“The new church will separate Dalit Catholic Christians from the Indian Catholic Church's casteist leadership.”
During the virtual meeting, Dalit leaders appealed to the Catholic Church, the apostolic nuncio to India and Pope Francis to curb the visible and invisible untouchability practices that exist in the selection of bishops.
They said that none of India’s four cardinals and 31 archbishops have a Dalit background. Similarly, among 188 bishops, only 11 are from the Dalit community. In caste-ridden Tamil Nadu, only one of 18 bishops is from a Dalit background.
Dalits, formerly untouchables, are the lowest caste within Hindu society. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.
The word Dalit means "trampled upon" in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-tier Hindu caste system. Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this socially deprived group. Some 60 percent of India's 25 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin.
Vincent Manoharan, national convener of National Dalit Christian Watch (NDCW), told UCA News that years of protests by the Dalit Christian community had not brought any positive changes.
He said protest marches are planned near the nuncio’s office and the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).
“Dalit Christians are fighting for their respective place in the Church as well as fighting in the Supreme Court for their scheduled caste status in society,” Manoharan said.
“From now onwards we will have national and international conventions to press our demand to end casteism and discrimination against Dalits in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, our brethren are suffering in both the Church and society.
“We are also planning to send our representative to the Vatican, United Nations and the European Union so that we can build a pressure group at international level.”