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Indian priest charged with molesting student, bishop cries harassment

It is an attempt to tarnish the image of the church and Christians, says Archbishop of Bhopal Leo Cornelio

Indian priest charged with molesting student, bishop cries harassment

BJP President Amit Shah addresses a press conference in the Madhya Pradesh capital of Bhopal on Aug. 19, 2017. The government led by his party is accused of approving attacks on Christians, latest being sex allegations against a Catholic priest filed on Sept. 1. (Photo by IANS) 

A Catholic priest who is the principal of a school has been charged by police for molesting a girl student in a central India state but bishops there say this is part of ongoing harassment against Christians.

Police in Madhya Pradesh state Sept. 1 filed criminal charges against 40-year-old Father Sebastian Panthalluparambil, principal of the church-run Jyoti Senior Secondary School in Rewa, under Satna Diocese.

The 17-year-old girl who made the complaint said two of them went to their principal's office  to seek his permission to organize a farewell program for a retiring teacher. The permission was denied and the principal "inappropriately touched" her body, a police official told ucanews.com quoting the complaint.

"This is totally a baseless and false complaint," Bishop Joseph Kodakallil of Santa told ucanews.com.

He said CCTV footage of the principal's office proves the complaint is baseless. They have shared the footage with investigating officers, the bishop said.

"It has been given as evidence to disprove the allegations. We have also asked the superintendent of police to conduct an impartial probe into the allegation," Bishop Kodakallil said.

Also, the alleged incident took place Aug. 30 but the complaint was filed only on Sept. 1, he said.

Police have booked the priest under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, aimed to deal with sexual offences against children below 18 years of age but have not yet arrested the priest.

Meanwhile, right-wing Hindu activists staged a protest at the school campus. They shouted slogans hailing the Hindu god Ram and burnt an effigy of the accused priest, demanding his arrest.

Archbishop of Bhopal Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, who is based in the Madhya Pradesh state capital said, allegations about the priest was another case of harassment against local Christians ever since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in the state 13 years ago.

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"It is an attempt to tarnish the image of the church. The real facts were distorted and a false case was registered against the priest," Archbishop Cornelio said.

This is not the first time in Maddhya Pradesh that a Catholic priest has been similarly charged. Police in July arrested Father Leo D'Souza, 56, following a complaint from the parents of an eighth-grade boy of the church-run Amar Jyoti School in the tribal-dominated district of Dindori.  

Local church leaders said police arrested Father D'Souza even without a preliminary investigation and that it was an attempt to tarnish the image of Christians. The priest was released next day of arrest following investigations. Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur had then said hard-line Hindu groups have tried to create trouble for Christians accusing them of converting tribal people to Christianity.

The BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government has been accused by Christian leaders of turning a blind eye to radical Hindu groups intimidating religious minorities in their rush to build a Hindu-only India.

Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief, an ecumenical forum that records persecutions against Christians and provides legal and other aid to victims, told ucanews.com that his organization has recorded more than 80 cases of harassment and attacks this year.

Christian leaders allege that the government tacitly approves such violence as police and administration take the side of the attackers.

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