Indian cardinal George Alencherry, pictured here at the Vatican March 2013, has intervened to secure the release of a priest and catechist in eastern Jharkhand state. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
An Indian cardinal has asked a court to immediately release a priest and catechist who are being detained on charges of conversion and land-grabbing in eastern Jharkhand state. Cardinal George Alencherry
, the major archbishop of the eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church, made his appeal Sept. 12 after a court refused to bail Father V.J. Binoy and catechist Munna Hansda
, five days after they were arrested. A district court in the small community of Godha denied bail but postponed the case for a further hearing Sept. 16, directing police in the meantime to prepare a full list of relevant facts so it could pass a final judgment on the bail application that day. The Kerala-based cardinal said there was a “want of clarity” in the denial of bail. “It is to be suspected as being a deliberate move to prolong their custody,” he said. “It is clear that those who are not happy with the social and educational activities of missionaries among the villagers are behind this.”
His statement said he had asked “concerned authorities” that the pair be released immediately because “they are under unjust judicial custody.” The priest and catechist were detained following complaints by tribal men that they had violated a state law prohibiting religious conversion through inducements or force and without informing government authorities. They also face several other charges, including violating state laws to grab land to tribal people, criminal intimidation of villagers, injuring or defiling places of worship, and deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of others. “We know it is a completely fabricated case and both the accused are innocent,” said Father N. M. Thomas, vicar general of Bhagalpur Diocese, where the accused work. “We are hopeful that they will get bail in the next hearing.” The influence of the BJP
Cardinal Alencherry, whose church members also work in the mission areas of northern and eastern India, said that “prolonging their judicial custody amounts to abuse of the legal system of the country.” “It is clear that those who are not happy with the social and educational activities of the missionaries among the villagers are behind this complaint and detention,” he said in his Sept. 12 press release. Christian leaders say Hindu groups have stepped up violence against them
ever since the pro-Hindu Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, locally and nationally. They also say state systems support Hindu groups that work toward the BJP’s ideology of Hindu nationhood for India, treating religious and ethnic minorities as second-class citizens. The cardinal said Christian missionaries had been working to educate and provide healthcare to the tribal and socially poor Dalit people in the interior villages of India. “The Christian community in India is shocked at the arrest of the priest and the catechist based on accusations fabricated with ulterior motives”, he said.
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