Papal intervention sought to end Dalit discrimination in India

Minority group insists 'Christ and caste cannot go together' ahead of Pope Francis' meeting with bishops
Papal intervention sought to end Dalit discrimination in India

Dalit Christians and activists protest in New Delhi Aug. 10, calling on the Indian government to pay them social security benefits, denied to them since 1950. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/

As Indian bishops prepare for their periodic visit to the Vatican, a group of socially poor Dalit people has appealed to Pope Francis to direct the prelates to work toward ending caste-based discrimination in the Church.

The call from the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) came ahead of the Ad Limina Apostolorum meeting between 200 bishops from India’s 174 dioceses and Pope Francis in three groups from Sept. 13 to Oct. 3. 

“We want Pope Francis to exhort the bishops to take responsibility and accountability to eradicate the caste discrimination of Dalit people within the Church,” said the movement’s president, Mary John.

John told that detailed documents explaining the prevalence of discrimination within the Catholic Church had been sent to India’s Apostolic Nunciature in the past. 

“We have revived the call a... with a request to take up the issue with bishops during their meeting with the pope,” John said.

Double discrimination

Dalit Christians, who form 33 percent of India’s 27 million Christians, say they experience discrimination within both the Church and society at large. 

John said the government has denied social security benefits to Dalit Christians on the ground that Christianity has no caste system. “But within the Church, we are seen as second-class Christians,” he said.

The word Dalit means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-tied Hindu caste system. 

“It has been proven beyond doubt that the Church practices caste and caste-based discrimination in every sphere of its domain and functions,” said Vincent Manoharan, convenor of National Dalit Christian Watch.

He said they were “struggling to gain adequate rights, privilege and space in church hierarchy, religious congregations and church institutions” and were “systematically avoided in all spheres of the Church.”

He said only 12 of the 174 Catholic dioceses were led by bishops of Dalit origin, that of the 27,000 priests in India only 2,500 were Dalits, and of some 65,000 professed nuns only 1,600 are from Dalit groups.
Moreover, of India’s four cardinals, no one is Dalit, he added.

Church 'supports non-Dalits'

Dalit people say in some parishes of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh states Dalit were given separate places to sit in churches, separate burial plots in cemeteries, while some parishes conducted separate feasts for Dalit Catholics, and some prohibited Dalit Catholic processions from passing through their areas.  

“Therefore, we need to challenge the Church. We need to assert that Christ and caste cannot go together,” Manoharan said.

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Both John and Manoharan maintain that the church hierarchy largely supports non-Dalits and that most decision-making bodies such as pastoral committees and parish committees were dominated by non-Dalits. 

“They support the existing church systems that overtly and covertly discriminate Dalit people,” Manoharan said.

In most parishes, gardeners and cemetery watchmen are Dalit Catholics and Dalit priests are posted in unimportant offices or in village churches. “The hierarchy finds ways to support such systems,” Manoharan said.

John said that while Pope Francis stands for “an inclusive Church” and “justice” but added: “He doesn’t seem to be adequately informed about the discrimination of Dalit Catholics. This status should not continue anymore.” 

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India published a Policy for Dalit Empowerment in 2016, proposing that positions should be found for Dalit Christians in all its areas of the Church. 

“But it is yet to be implemented by the dioceses,” said John. “The Church has to come out with affirmative action policy and ensure its implementation.”

Father Vijay Kumar Nayak, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops’ office for Dalits and lower classes, said that both the Vatican and Indian bishops were aware of the problem.

“We hope that the Vatican will not be a silent spectator as Dalit Christians struggle to gain their human dignity and equality,” said the priest.

“Dalit Christians should be given dignity, equality and positions at all levels of the Church. That is made clear in policy passed by the bishops.”

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