Many Church-run schools in Madhya Pradesh have been hit by surprise inspections to curb 'religious conversion'
Catholics in Delhi archdiocese pray during an annual Palm Sunday gathering in this April 4, 2017 file photo. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
A court has granted bail to a Catholic priest four days after his arrest and detention in a central Indian state where child rights panels are on an inspection spree of Church-run schools and institutions to prevent alleged religious conversions.
Father R B Dionysius, principal of St. Mary’s School, in Morena district in Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was released on March 28 after being held on multiple charges, including disturbing the peace and using criminal force against a public servant on duty.
People familiar with the development said the priest was framed in a false case to tarnish the image of the Catholic school in Gwalior diocese, and in a state where Christians make up a mere 0.29 percent of its 72 million population.
“Father Dionysius is traumatized,” said a fellow priest from the diocese who did not want to be named.
We are now helping him to recover, the priest added.
Dionysius was arrested on March 25 following a surprise raid on his residence within the school campus by government officials, under the leadership of Nivedita Sharma, a member of the state’s commission for the protection of child rights.
"Not a single parent or student made a complaint"
After the raid, Sharma told media people that the team seized liquor bottles, condoms, and religious objects.
It was part of a well-orchestrated strategy to defame the priest and the school, which enjoys a good reputation in the locality, the diocesan priest added.
“Nearly 1,800 students are studying at St. Mary’s School and not a single parent or student made a complaint,” the priest noted.
The diocesan priest said the state child rights panel and district officials were targeting only Christian schools in Gwalior, where former untouchables (Dalits) and tribal people make up 23 percent of its 6,098,000 population.
Madhya Pradesh, known for its economic backwardness and low literacy rate of 64.11 percent, has nearly 21.1 percent of its population coming from a tribal background.
A diocesan official said Dionysius was targeted after he canceled a contract awarded to a right-wing Hindu leader associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Madhya Pradesh.
“Even keeping religious materials in school has become a cause of concern for the child rights commission"
The contract was terminated because of the poor quality of work, the official added.
Sharma and her team conducted another raid on the Gwalior diocese-run St. Peter’s School in Dabra district, on March 27 and accused the school of indulging in religious conversion.
The team seized posters, banners, crucifixes, and religious objects used for the feast of Infant Jesus earlier.
“Even keeping religious materials in school has become a cause of concern for the child rights commission and its members are making false allegations of conversion against schools,” the diocesan priest lamented.
Earlier, a school run by Jabalpur diocese in the tribal-dominated Dindori district was raided and its principal, a layperson, was arrested for alleged sexual assaults on girls in its hostel. A criminal "cheating" case was also filed against Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur.
Many schools, hostels and orphanages run by Christians in the central Indian state, which enacted a sweeping anti-conversion law in 2021, have come under the scrutiny of federal and state child rights panels under the pretext of curbing religious conversions.
“It is a totally false allegation. We are serving society and we need to be treated respectfully,” said a Church leader who did not want to be named.
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