Indian dalit Christians and Muslims sit in the rain during a protest rally in August 2012. (Photo by Raveendran/AFP)
The Catholic Church in India is taking its cue from Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment in observing its annual Day for the Liberation of Dalits.
"As we take care of nature, we have to take care of the marginalized and oppressed people in our country," Father Devasagaya Raj, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops’ office for dalits and lower classes, told ucanews.com.
The priest highlighted the importance of the pope’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, which was addressed to every person on the planet.
When nature is exploited, dalits are also exploited and discriminated by society, he said.
"Let us take a vow to protect the rights of these people and give them their due place in the society," Father Raj said, adding that the encyclical, while talking about saving the climate, also includes the “social climate."
In the encyclical, the pope blamed human greed for the planet's critical environmental emergency.
The Catholic Church in India annually celebrates The Day for the Liberation of Dalits on the nearest Sunday following the U.N. Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.
Hence, Dec. 13 this year is to be observed at the parish level to educate "our own Catholics about the rights of the dalits," said Father Raj.
There will be special prayers in parish churches and liturgies will be centered around the theme of climate, castes and care for the Earth, he explained.
Indian society comprises the high castes — Brahmins (priests, teachers), Kshatriyas (kings, warriors) and Vaishyas (merchants, artisans). The Sudras (laborers, peasants) make up the lowest caste.
Those not born into these four castes were the outcasts, formerly called untouchables, who are now called dalits, a Sanskrit term meaning "trampled upon."
The dalits have long been the target of disempowerment, oppression and persecution even though the Indian Constitution abolished caste discrimination and made "untouchability" because of religious sanction a punishable offence.
It guarantees quotas, for dalits and other underprivileged classes, in government jobs and in educational institutions.
However, Christian and Muslim dalits are denied these benefits on the grounds that their religions do not recognize the caste system.
Christian dalits in India have been fighting for their rights as enjoyed by their Hindu counterparts for more than half a century.
Church leaders estimate that at least half of India's 23 million Christians are of dalit origin.