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Indian Christians call for more Dalit prelates

Dalit organizations decry discrimination against the marginalized community within the Church

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Indian Christians call for more Dalit prelates

Dalit Christians hold a protest demanding their rights in Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu, on Jan. 28. (Photo supplied)

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Dalit Christian organizations have urged the Church to appoint prelates of Dalit origin in dioceses in southern India. Five dioceses in Tamil Nadu and one archdiocese in Puducherry, a union territory, are currently without bishops and archbishops.

“We have faced discrimination within the Church as well as in civil society over the past several decades and our demands remain same — to treat Dalit Christians equally,” M. Mary John, a Dalit Christian activist from Tamil Nadu, told UCA News.

“It is sad that out of 170 dioceses and archdioceses, there are only 11 Dalit bishops in India and only one in Tamil Nadu. No bishops of Dalit origin have been appointed since 2006.

“We had a virtual meeting on Oct. 7 with the president of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, Archbishop Antony Pappusamy of Madurai, and he assured us of help.”

The meeting involved several Dalit advocacy organizations.

Archbishop Pappusamy said that while he is very much in support of the Dalit Christian cause, his powers are limited as the selection of bishops involves several stages and various authorities in the dioceses and religious congregations. 

Dalit Christian leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with caste domination at every stage and suggested a list of Dalit priests be sent to the apostolic nuncio to be considered for selection to bishoprics.

John, president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, said that out of Tamil Nadu’s 18 bishops, only one is from the Dalit community. 

The leaders recalled statements by Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis and by cardinals of some Vatican dicasteries expressing concern about caste divisions, untouchability and the marginalization of Dalits in the Church.

Tamil Nadu's first Dalit archbishop was only appointed in December 1993. Over the next 12 years, three more Dalit bishops were appointed and one of them was elevated to archbishop.

Dalits, or untouchables, are the lowest caste within Hindu society. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though in reality the religions offer limited protection from 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 community. Some 60 percent of India's 25 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin.

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