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Updated: March 15, 1992 05:00 PM GMT
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A Church of South India (CSI) diocese is facing a split with youth because of discrimination against "dalit" (low caste people).

Dalit youth of the Kottayam-based CSI Central Kerala diocese allege that they are denied appointments to Church institutions.

They also denounce separate cemeteries and other forms of social segregation within the Church.

"Dalit" in Sanskrit means "trampled upon" and denotes former untouchables.

Pastor M.J. Joseph, leader of the Dynamic Action Group (DAG) that campaigns against discrimination, told UCA News that dalits are a majority in 21 dioceses but discrimination is bad because of Syrian dominance.

The CSI consists of Protestant Churches from India´s four southern states.

DAG member Mathew John said, "Dalit Christians can receive communion only after the high caste Syrians ... and that too from a different chalice."

John, an unemployed dalit youth with a master´s degree in teaching, noted that appointments to Church institutions are the exclusive preserve of a Syrian minority that constitutes only 25 percent of Church membership.

"We have to carry our dead to a distant cemetery from several dalit parishes even though each parish has a cemetery," John said. The parish cemetery is used exclusively for Syrians, he said.

A diocesan official dismissed the controversy as mere "radicalism" of the youth. "There is no substance in their allegations," said the bishop´s emissary Reverend C.K. Mathew.

"This is a dalit diocese and it belongs to them," the emissary told UCA News, claiming the diocese has given its dalit members "more than enough."

But Pastor Joseph said the Syrians "enjoyed a monopoly in the Church" ever since they worked as assistants to the British Protestant missioners who came to Kerala in the 19th century.

"Most clergy are Syrians and dalits are seldom admitted to the Church service," said Pastor Joseph, one of the Syrian sympathizers of dalit youth.

"The missioners were aware of the Syrian dominance but they did not try to end the caste barrier," said Pastor Joseph.

The Syrian Christians in Kerala claim they are descendants of high caste people who were converted by Saint Thomas the Apostle in the first century.

Most Syrians in the diocese are now landowners, business people and government employees in urban areas, whereas dalits are manual laborers and fishermen in rural pockets.

The dalit unrest began in l942 after they demanded separate administration within the Church.

John and his friends admitted that Syrians, like Pastor Joseph who support them, have received "rough treatment" by the Church hierarchy.

Explaining the Syrian domination, Pastor Joseph, who received a one year suspension in 1984 for supporting the youth, noted that each Syrian majority parish elects a representative to the diocesan council, but several dalit parishes have to come together to elect their representatives.

The diocesan council is all powerful. It elects even the bishop, he added.

Sam Abraham, editor of a monthly magazine, "Yuva Lokam" (Youth World), said discrimination against the dalits has forced them to go to court.

In 1988 police were called to control the youth, who protested the extravagant celebration for the bishop´s 60th birthday.

John said the dalits are able to control the youth center because of the democratic set up in their Church. The 75-year-old center is their base now.


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