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Marathon prayers in Indian state ahead of elections

Catholics hold all-night vigils in Chhattisgarh praying for a safe and peaceful poll

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Marathon prayers in Indian state ahead of elections

A parish priest in Jashpur Diocese leads a procession to his village church to start a prayer chain launched by Catholics in two dioceses of India’s Chhattisgarh state. (Photo provided by Jashpur Diocese)

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Ahead of national elections in India, Catholics in two dioceses of Chhattisgarh state have launched a marathon prayer program, encouraged by the result of a similar program during a state election last year.

The all-night prayer program has been designed to cover all 96 parishes of Jashpur and Raigarh dioceses.

Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh said a prayer chain was very successful in November’s state election.

A group of Catholic leaders walk from parish to parish with a wooden cross. At the periphery of each village, they are welcomed by the parish priest and parishioners. They then move to the village church to spend the night in prayer.

They sometimes use bicycles if the distance is too far to walk, said tribal leader Gregory Kujur of Jashpur Diocese.

A typical night vigil includes Bible readings, the rosary, lay leaders speaking on Biblical themes, hymns, Holy Hour and Benediction.

The state election surprised many when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost power to rival Congress.

The BJP, which had been in power in Chhattisgarh for 15 years since 2003, has been criticized by Christian leaders for its pro-Hindu stance.

The BJP, which also runs the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tacitly supports Hindu groups’ violence against Christians because it wants to make India a Hindu-only nation, critics say.

Christian leaders were relieved at the result of the Chhattisgarh election and continue to exhort people to pray to have a government in New Delhi that would not support the idea of making India an exclusive nation of Hindus.

Bishop Toppo said the prayer chain “has nothing to do with politics. We do not speak about supporting any political party. We pray together for our country, our state and our people and pray for a safe and peaceful general election.”

About 98 percent of Chhattisgarh’s 23 million people are Hindu, the highest proportion in India. Muslims account for 1 percent, while Christians, who are mostly tribal and socially poor Dalit people, account for only 160,000 people or 0.7 percent.

Bishop Toppo said that although the state is mineral-rich, about 50 percent of people live below the poverty line, meaning they cannot afford a full meal each day. “The government has to work to eradicate poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment,” he said.

The Raigarh parliamentary constituency, which covers the area of both dioceses, has been a BJP stronghold. Party candidate Vishnu Dev Sai has won the last four parliamentary elections since 1999.

Bishop Emmanuel Kerketta of Jashpur told that the prayer chain and elections should not be linked. “It is part of Christian custom to pray whenever we have problems. When the community faces a crisis, we pray together for God’s guidance and this is one of those occasions,” he said.

Tribal leader Kujur said the prayer program also includes information about state welfare schemes and projects from which parishioners could benefit. “It is killing two birds with one stone because it gives them spiritual nourishment and also makes them aware of their rights due from the government,” Kujur said.

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