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Updated: August 26, 2001 05:00 PM GMT
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Christian groups in India have welcomed a government plan to monitor asylums for the mentally ill, but fear that Hindu theocrats in the federal government would use it to curb the Church´s evangelical programs.

The federal health ministry´s move came in the wake of a fire tragedy at an asylum in Tamil Nadu, southern India, on Aug. 6 that killed 28 mentally challenged patients kept chained to posts and cots.

Many such asylums in the state were attached to places of Muslim worship where people flocked to heal mental disability through prayer.

The All India Christian Council, an ecumenical laity organization, warned that if the plan is implemented, "even genuine evangelical camps can be monitored and harassed." It suspects that pro-Hindu groups want to keep under surveillance Christian centers frequented by believers in faith healing.

A council statement noted Hindu militant groups´ allegation that Christian faith-healing centers such as the Divine Retreat Centre in the southern Indian state of Kerala used faith-healing sessions for conversion.

It urged the government not to deny the mentally disabled patients´ right to get relief from counseling, medication or "some other non-quack therapy."

Condemning the move to "choke genuine evangelistic activity," the Christian council challenged the government to regulate centers where Hindu holy men, quacks and "spurious preachers brainwash people."

The Divine Retreat Centre´s weeklong retreat attracts some 5,000 people and its leaders see the government´s plan as "an overreaction and a hasty move."

Retreat center associate director Father Augustine Vallooran told UCA News that they support the ban on centers that exploit the mentally disabled, but opposed curbing religious and voluntary groups´ efforts to help those suffering psychiatric disorders.

He noted "cruel, primitive and dangerous health conditions" in government-run centers, and urged the government to build proper infrastructure to rehabilitate the mentally challenged, "instead of looking at us as enemies."

The Vincentian priest said people of all religions flock to their center "for prayer and retreat, not for conversion" and "a dedicated team of priests who uphold Christian spiritual values" addresses their problems.

Bishop Gregory Karotemprel of Rajkot also supports checking superstitions, but views as "futile" the government plan to keep surveillance on faith.

Father Roland Fialho, director of Bombay archdiocese´s Catholic Charismatic Renewal, said the ministry of healing will continue as people will not tolerate government interference with their practice of faith.

Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Agra, secretary general of Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India, said he worries about the government move, but said "it will not dissuade the Church from practicing our faith in healing the sick."

He said the government "will cut a sorry figure internationally" if it interfered with its people´s constitutional right to practice their religions.

Bishop Karotemprel said he finds "Hindu faith healing centers worse as some of them practice even human sacrifice." In the past three years, Rajkot witnessed four human sacrifices to appease gods and to seek prosperity. "But none of the culprits or the victims was a psychiatric patient," he added.

Jesuit Father John Chrysostom of Patna, eastern India, noted that "healing through faith in the mercy and miracles of the Supreme Father has been an integral part" of most religions.

His confrere Father George Karamayil, who heads Patna archdiocese´s charismatic renewal team, claimed that their programs have helped reconcile families and lessen drug addiction.

Bishop Victor Henry Thakur of Bettiah said that Church centers provide an alternative when medical sciences fail and that even medical experts have accepted that psycho-somatic illnesses can get healed through prayer.

Father K.T. Mathew, a Jesuit in Gujarat, western India, said most faith-healing centers are "fake" and exploit people´s sentiments for money, and Archbishop Marianus Arokiasamy of Madurai, southern India, said religious leaders must educate people to seek medical care for the mentally challenged.


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