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Hindu hardliners try to damage mission schools' image

Attacks in northern India are designed to undermine credibility of church and educators, says bishop

Hindu hardliners try to damage mission schools' image

A file photo of hard-line Hindu activists barging into a Christian school in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh on Dec. 7, 2010. Christian leaders say their mission schools are frequently attacked to scare people away. (ucanews.com photo)

Saji Thomas, Bhopal
India

October 3, 2017

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The recent attack on a Catholic school in northern India's Uttar Pradesh state following the suicide of a student was the latest example of engineered violence designed to tarnish Christian missions in the country, church leaders have said.

An angry mob on Sept. 15 attacked St. Anthony's Convent School in Gorakhpur town after an 11-year-old boy committed suicide.

The boy reportedly left a note saying he had taken the extreme step because of harassment by his teacher. Police arrested the teacher as an angry mob threw stones and damaged school property.

"This is not a one-off incident," said Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur, who is based in Madhya Pradesh state. "Christian schools often become the target of mob violence in northern Indian states, where Christians are a minority."

Several schools and missionaries in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states have recently come under attack. The attacks are part of an organized campaign by Hindu nationalist groups to tarnish the image of Christians, which also involve false accusations against missionaries, the bishop said.

Christians in these state form a minuscule percentage of the local population and is much less than the national 2.3 percent of India's 1.25 billion population.

"We always offer quality and cheap education to children in remote rural areas and in towns where the focus is on the poor and socially weaker sections," Bishop Almedia said. "But many in the Hindu groups are opposed to educating lower caste people and making them equal to the higher caste in education."

Hindu groups working to make India a Hindu-only state also want to establish caste hegemony. "They are out to tarnish the image of Christian missions and attack our institutions to scare people away from Christians and to intimidate missionaries," the bishop said.

Christy Abraham, general secretary of the Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh (National Christian Federation) in Madhya Pradesh, said the credibility of school administrations was frequently attacked on flimsy grounds. This involved concocted police cases and false allegations of sexual abuse leveled against school managers and principals, who are usually priests and nuns.

In the past year, the federation has counted over 20 attacks on Christian schools across northern India, Abraham told ucanews.com. Several cases have also gone unreported for fear of further backlash, he said.

Police in Madhya Pradesh state on Sept. 1 filed charges against Father Sebastian Panthalluparambil, 40, the principal of the church-run Jyoti Senior Secondary School in Rewa, over the alleged sexual assault of a girl. No charges were laid against the priest after CCTV footage of him meeting the child in his office showed no physical contact between them.

On July 10, police arrested Father Leo D'Souza, 56, of Jabalpur Diocese after the parents of an eight grade student alleged the priest sexually abused their son inside the church-run Amar Jyoti School. The priest was granted bail the next day.

"We will not succumb to such pressures," said Bishop Almeida. He said he had asked his priests to do everything to obey the law, even if it meant facing persecution.

"This is a hard time for Christian education institutions," said Shibu Thomas, the head of Persecution Relief, an ecumenical body that registers persecution cases and helps those facing accusations.

Thomas said Christians were at the forefront of "creating awareness" among oppressed people to help them stand against the caste-based hierarchy and social restrictions. "This is inviting the ire of those who always want the hegemony of the Hindu upper caste," Thomas said.

He said government schools were unable to provide quality education to the poor, who cannot afford to send their wards to private schools. "Christian schools are the only place for the poor to get educated," Thomas said.

A report in the Patrika newspaper on Sept. 24 said prominent Hindu group Rashtriaya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the ruling Bharaitya Janata Party is annoyed by the influence of missionary education on Indian society.

The report said RSS leaders met education officials and state ministers of Madhya Pradesh to discuss improvement of education standards at government school to stop more children enrolling in missionary schools.

But indigenous leaders such as Gulzar Singh Markam, in Madhya Pradesh said, "our children get fair treatment in Christian schools. Many have come up in life because of Christian schools … we need more such schools."

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