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India

Indian priest molestation on bus charge queried

Church officials suspect there has been a false accusation linked to Catholic-Baptist rivalry

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

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Indian priest molestation on bus charge queried

A file image of a commuter hanging on a bus during the morning rush hour in an Indian city. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

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Police have arrested a Catholic priest accused of molesting a 27-year-old woman by touching her hand on a crowded moving bus in north-eastern India.

Father Biju Joseph, a member of the St. Francis de Sales Congregation, was travelling to his Tura Diocese in Meghalaya state from neighbouring Assam state on the night of March 15 when the alleged incident happened.

"A woman passenger on the bus complained to the police that the priest touched her hand, and based on the complaint police have slapped molestation charges against the priest," said Father Philip Thomas, of the congregation's north-east India province.

Father Joseph has denied the charges.

And Father Thomas said the complaint was "difficult to be believed".

The priest was arrested on his arrival in Meghalaya on March 16, and was produced before a local magistrate who sent him into judicial custody, Father Thomas confirmed.

The complainant belongs to the Baptist Church. Her friends also accused the priest of touching her hand, according to local media reports.

Some reports said she and her companions joined to abuse and manhandle the priest, before handing him over to police.

"The alleged offence had taken place in the territory of Assam," said a church official, requesting anonymity.

"But they waited for the bus to arrive in Meghalaya to lodge a complaint," he said.

"Apparently, it was a pre-planned move."

Church officials said rivalry between the Catholic and the Baptist churches simmers in several areas of north-eastern states, where American Baptist missionaries first arrived in 1836.

Catholic missioners arrived only at the beginning of 20th century but found resistance in some places from Baptists. Catholic missions continue to face opposition and restrictions in some areas, church officials said.

Three of the seven states in the region — Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland — have Christian majorities.

The seven states together have some 5 million Christians, with Baptists forming 1.8 million, Catholics numbering 1.7 million and Presbyterians constituting 1.4 million.

The accused priest currently serves in Sumonpara Parish in the South Garo Hills district of Meghalaya.

Efforts were afoot to bail the priest out of jail, Father Thomas said.

Father Jose Chirackal, spokesperson for the Tura Diocese, told ucanews.com that church officials are waiting for the police investigation to be completed in order to "know the truth".

The Catholic Church, he told ucanews.com, maintained zero tolerance on such issues and action would be initiated if the priest was convicted in a court of law.

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