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September 30 1997

Reverend Karam Masih, a Church activist and a dalit, has been consecrated bishop of the Church of North India´s (CNI) Delhi diocese.

In a two-hour ceremony Sept. 18 at New Delhi´s Cathedral Church of the Redemption, Bishop Masih, 55, was consecrated as successor of Bishop Pritam Santram, who retired at the stipulated age of 65.

Born in the northern Indian state of Punjab in 1942, Bishop Masih is Delhi diocese´s first low-caste bishop, according to John Dayal, a Church observer.

The new bishop said his top priorities would include spiritual unity in his diocese and unity of the Churches in India.

"I will work closely with fellow bishops in the country by sharing a special responsibility to maintain and further Church unity and to guard its faith," he told UCA News Sept. 18.

He said he would also strive to cultivate meaningful relations with other religious communities.

The CNI, formed in 1970 as a union of six Protestant Churches, has more than 1 million members in 24 dioceses.

Bishop Masih, who has led the CNI´s campaign for government benefits for dalit Christians, said denial of economic and job reservation benefits to dalit Christians is "a burning issue in the Christian community."

"Dalit" in Sanskrit means "tramped-upon" and denotes the former untouchables in India´s four-tier caste system. The Indian Constitution provides special concessions to dalits of the Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh religions.

An estimated 60 percent of Indian Christians belong to dalit groups, but they are denied statutory benefits on the ground that their religion does not recognize the caste system.

Bishop Masih said the CNI and the Catholic Church would press the government to grant job quota benefits to dalit Christians.

The Delhi diocese´s third prelate also said he would redirect his diocese´s social service schemes to develop the capital´s slums and rural areas.

"I am disheartened to see more than a third of Delhi´s 10 million people living in slums," he said, adding he would seek to improve health care, provide drinking water and raise literacy.

During the ceremony Sept. 18, three presbyters and three laypersons from the diocese presented the bishop-elect to CNI Moderator Bishop Dhirendra K. Mohanty.

The CNI moderator described Bishop Masih as "a godly and learned person" with "down-to-earth simplicity" and added that the new prelate would foster the diocese´s spiritual unity since he "knows his people well."

Outgoing Bishop Santram told UCA News that Bishop Masih "is a person with lots of commitment and dedication."

Father John Vallamattam, Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India´s public relations office secretary, described Bishop Masih as "very hard-working," adding, "His struggle for dalit Christians has been praiseworthy."