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Updated: November 06, 1995 05:00 PM GMT
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The oldest Christian community in Bihar, eastern India, is celebrating its 250th year with a renewed resolve to foster Church-centered faith and uphold their tradition of communal harmony.

Catholics in the Bettiah region of Muzaffarpur diocese trace the origin of their faith community to Italian Capuchins, who set up a Christian community in 1745 with converts from upper- and middle-caste Hindus.

"Though surrounded by non-Christians, the community maintained its faith because of its Church-centered life, fostered by continuous missionary care," said Monsignor Joachim Osta, parish priest of Bettiah´s main church.

Now less than half its members are found in Bettiah, on the Indo-Nepal border some 950 kilometers east of New Delhi. The others are spread throughout India and abroad.

The smallest of Bihar´s three ethnic Christian communities, Bettiah Catholics maintain strict rules regarding marriage. The other communities are tribal Christians and "dalit" (low caste) converts.

"Marriage within the community and Church-centered customs have apparently helped" members keep up their faith even outside Bihar, James Seraphim, a Catholic in Bettiah, told UCA News.

Monsignor Osta, himself a Bettiah Catholic, said his people have maintained their traditions and lead Church activities wherever they settled.

Seraphim attributes the exodus to American Jesuit missioners who stressed education after taking over the Patna mission in the 1920s.

"Today, Bettiah Christians have left traditional jobs, teach or run schools," Seraphim said. Amitabh Varma, a Hindu college teacher in Bettiah, said Bettiah Christians are known as a community of teachers and educators.

Bettiah lay Catholics now manage 27 schools in Bettiah, a town of 100,000 people. "Those who cannot run a school start tuition classes at home," said Cherubim John, another member of the community.

Verma hails Bettiah Christians for maintaining close relations with Hindu and Muslim communities around them. Salvatore, a Catholic teacher, said his community was never involved in "communal strife" during the past 250 years.

"Not only in social but even religious functions, our Hindu friends visit our church, pray at the grotto and share meals with us," he said. Many attribute this to the community´s unique origin.

Cherubim John, a writer and historian, said the Bettiah community began after Italian Capuchin Father Joseph Mary Bernini cured the local queen of an "incurable" illness.

The king donated 16 hectares of land later known as the "Christian Quarters" to the Capuchins. The king allowed Father Bernini, who was on his way to Tibet, to preach, and helped build a church next to his palace.

John said Bettiah Christians "religiously maintain" their separate identity because Capuchins kept converts from non-Christians lest they lose the faith.

Monsignor Osta said Bettiah Christians could evolve a distinct identity since they nurtured indigenous traditions and Christian faith.

Though missioners had "tremendous influence" on the people "in all aspects of culture and religion," they maintained local traditions and customs in most social and marriage functions, he added.

Their closeness to the Church also helped Catholics maintain contact with missioners. Everyone attended Church services, the monsignor said.

"This has made the community too dependent on clergy even for economic needs," said James Seraphim of the diocese socio-economic development center.

Jesuit Father Cherubim Sah, Bettiah assistant parish priest, said the Church-centered life helped foster vocations to priesthood and religious life.

The first priest from the community was ordained in 1861. It now has two bishops, 45 priests and 50 nuns serving in various dioceses in northern India.

Monsignor Osta said the September-December anniversary fete is helping them to reassert their Christian witness and tradition of communal harmony.


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