Bishop Agnelo Rufino Gracias, apostolic administrator of Jalandhar Diocese, opens the meeting of lawyer priests and nuns in Mumbai by lighting a traditional oil lamp. (Photo supplied)
Lawyer priests and nuns in India want every diocese to organize their Catholic lawyers to help the community face increasing attacks through the country’s legal system. Some 100 priests and nuns, members of the National Lawyers Forum of Religious and Priests, decided to request the national bishops’ conference to use its network to help every diocese to have a forum of Catholic lawyers, including laypeople. “It is dismaying to see the helplessness of Christian communities in the face of targeted attacks, violence and harassment against them,” said lawyer and activist Father Thomas Terakam after the Nov. 15-17 meeting in western India's Mumbai city. The Indian constitution ensures religious freedom and justice without discrimination of caste, class, gender or religion, and Christians should make it their forte, the lawyers said in a statement. The constitution guarantees “the basic fundamental rights to every citizen without discrimination.”
“The ominous developments in our country in the recent past indicate a serious and often disturbing erosion in the basic constitutional values cherished by the founders of our nation,” the statement said. Complaints of violence against religious minorities have increased since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 in New Delhi and several other northern states. Hindu groups took the political victory as a mandate to work for their aim of turning India a Hindu-only nation. They stepped up violence against Christians, Muslims and other minorities such as socially poor Dalit and tribal people, opponents of BJP claim. On average, India reports one act of anti-Christian violence each day. Indian Christians faced 331 incidents of hate crimes this year up to September, according to data gathered by Persecution Relief, an ecumenical forum that keeps a record of Christian persecution in India. “Persecution of Christians has spread across India,” and the numbers have been steadily increasing over the past five years, said Shibu Thomas, the founder-director of Persecution Relief. “Uttar Pradesh state saw a significant spike in hate crimes against Christians, perpetuating an atmosphere of fear and communal unrest in this State,” he told ucanews. Jesuit Father P.D. Mathew, a lawyer, said the Church has a role to help people face violence through available democratic methods. “We need to work together with like-minded people to defend our constitution,” he told ucanews on Nov. 19. “We see violations of human rights of minorities, Dalits, indigenous people and other weaker sections, but seldom they get help. They want timely legal help,” said the Jesuit. Church systems “can do a great job if we form a network of trained lawyers and involve priests, nuns and laypeople to work together for the cause.”Father Mathew said India has millions of “illiterate people who do not understand laws” and fail even to make a formal police complaint. “As Christians, we have a role in helping them.” He wanted the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India to “encourage, support and collaborate” with the forum of lawyer priests and nuns “to address the burning issues that need urgent intervention.” Christians form a mere 2.3 percent of the more than 1.3 billion Indians or some 29 million people. But more than 60 percent come from Dalit or tribal backgrounds and live in villages where they are discriminated against and harassed, leaders said.
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