Catholic World News News Feature

Suffering for the Church December 31, 2001

Taking a break from their national convention late in November, over 100 of the priests and religious who head youth-evangelization programs for India's 133 dioceses took to the streets in New Delhi. Wearing their cassocks and habits, they marched through the city on November 26, shouting "We want security." The youth ministers ended their protest march only after submitting a letter to Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, pointing out in a remarkable understatement that "recent atrocities disturb us." They added that they "feel threatened about our security in a secular country."

Catholic religious workers felt that they had ample reason to stage such an unusual public protest, following several recent brutal assaults on Catholic priests. The latest victim was 35-year-old Salesian Father Jose Nedumattathil, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman on November 22 at his residence in Maram, in the northeastern Manipur state.

Earlier, the Indian church had been shocked in the first week of September when Father Christudas, of the Dumka diocese in the eastern Bihar state, was paraded naked for several miles through the streets of the town, with the apparent connivance of police officials, who stood by and watched the unfortunate procession. This was followed by the killing of Jesuit Father A. T. Thomas whose headless body was found October 27 in a jungle three days after he had been kidnapped near Hazaribag, which is also in Bihar.

ALARMING TRENDS

The steady increase in the number of assaults on priests and nuns in the recent past has been a serious concern for the 16 million faithful of the Indian Church. Since 1978, 18 priests and nuns have been murdered in India--14 of them in the 1990s. In most cases the killings have been attributed to groups who strongly opposed the social work the Catholic religious had been undertaking, which involved efforts to promote the rights of the members of tribal minority groups and of the lower castes in India's old social system.

However, the sadistic manner in which Father Thomas was tortured to death (his bones were broken and nails plucked out before he was beheaded) went far beyond the usual bounds of anti-Christian violence, and provoked a new level of concern among Catholics. "The Christian community is in tears praying the Lord for justice to be done and for the conversion of the heart of mischievous and hard hearted criminals," said Archbishop Joseph Powathil, the president of Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) in an emotional statement as he gave the news that the Jesuit priest had been murdered.

The marks of torture on Father Thomas' headless corpse bore abundant testimony to how much he had to suffer for taking up the cudgels on behalf of Dalits (lower-caste peoples) against the powerful Zamindars (landlords). The priest has been away from Hazaribag for over two years, studying sociology in Manila. He had returned to Hazaribag only briefly, in order to conduct field studies in conjunction with his academic work. The fact that the cold-blooded killing took place during this visit indicates that the upper-caste militants of Hazaribag do not easily forgive those who foment what they see as a rebellious attitude on the part of their lower-caste neighbors.

Father Thomas, who headed a network of Jesuit village schools for impoverished Dalits around Hazaribag for six years, had supported the Dalits in their bid to cultivate a piece of land which had been appropriated by landlords of the upper castes. To their surprise, the Dalits and their Catholic supporters managed to vindicate their rights to the land in a landmark court case, and some members of the upper castes were imprisoned for having forcibly taken over the land without legal warrant. This was a victory for the Dalits and a tremendous loss of face for the upper castes. The frustrated landlords went to jail, but they never forgot who was behind their imprisonment. On October 24, Father Thomas had arrived in the village of Sirka as a group of individuals dressed in police uniforms were beating up one of the villagers. When Father. Thomas asked what was going on, one of the "police" said, "this is the man who sent me to jail." The priest was surrounded, his hand were tied, and he was taken away at gunpoint even as the villagers protested: "He's a good man, let him go." It turned out that the "police" were in fact a breakaway group of thugs who, under the guise of a people's movement, were busy extorting money from the villagers.

Even a month after the killing, police have succeeded neither in recovering Father Thomas' severed head nor in arresting the culprits. Their process has been slow, in an area where militant groups and private armies--groups which often use political slogans to mask their more prosaic criminal plans--exercise more control than the police.

"Our field workers have been challenged, some of them at gunpoint [by these militant groups], but they have stood their ground," Father Edward Muduvassery, the local Jesuit provincial, told Catholic World Report. But he conceded that Church personnel are being more cautious in their activities, even as they do their best to continue their work. "These are the people with whom Father Thomas was working," he said, but added: "Due to the threats, we have withdrawn female field workers and now our priests are going to the villages."

Deploring the "lawless" situation in Bihar, the Jesuit provincial pointed out: "Private armed groups now control large areas of the countryside. Some of these groups have clear ideological affiliation and principles. Others are mere gangs who have joined them for their own self interest." It was apparently one of these splintered groups, infiltrated by upper-caste individuals, which beheaded the Jesuit priest, despite the fact that the political rhetoric of the militant groups generally falls in line with the Church's goal of lifting up the downtrodden.

AN ACCUSATION AND AN ASSAULT

If the inability of the police to arrest the culprits who beheaded Father Thomas can be explained away as a "law-and-order problem," the Church has yet to find a rational explanation for the conduct of the top district officials in Dumka, in whose presence Father Christudas was stripped, beaten, and forced to walk naked for over three hours with a garland around his neck. When that public trial was over, it was the priest--not his assailants--who was put in jail.

Father Christudas had become the object of public opprobrium when he was accused of a sexual assault on a student at the St. Joseph School, where he was the assistant principal. That charge came--perhaps not coincidentally--soon after Father Christudas had disciplined the sons of some local officials for violating the school's rules. The local judiciary, in another sign of hostility against the priest, refused to set any bail figures for his release; he remained in prison until a higher state court ordered his release on bail more than two months later.

Catholic leaders in the area insisted that the priest had been falsely accused. "The reason for this inhuman treatment is the disciplinary action taken (by the priest) against some students. They have concocted allegations of sexual abuse against the priest," said the Indian bishops' Justice and Peace Commission in a public statement demanding strong action against the guilty parties.

"This is an insult to the whole Christian community," said Joseph P. John, the secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission. And the Church official saw another dimension to the hostility against Catholics. "The root cause of the problem is the Hindu fundamentalists' opposition to our social work among tribal peoples in Dumka," said John, adding that Hindu fundamentalist groups had been behind earlier efforts to curb Catholic social action. He charged that these same groups had convinced local thugs and "some students of the school disciplined by the priest, to assault and humiliate him publicly."

Roughly the same charge was reiterated by Father P.A. Chacko, SJ, of Dumka. As soon as the public humiliation of Father Christudas was over, he said, a local Hindu party leader visited the bishop's residence in Dumka to deliver a message: "This is our first victory. There will be more." The politician even reportedly taunted the nuns who greeted him at the bishop's residence, asking them: "Why don't you too walk naked?" He then went around to other Church institutions, including the Jesuit residence, with similar "greetings."

In a telephone interview, Father Christudas was adamant in proclaiming his innocence. He said:

Everything was pre-planned. The boy who accused me of sodomy could not even repeat the charge at the police station. He was brainwashed to make the charge by senior students who did not like my disciplinarian approach. They wanted to finish me off morally, and even spread the rumor that I committed suicide in jail.

Speaking shortly after his release from prison on November 14, Father Christudas expressed the belief that he was suffering on behalf of the Church:

But the way the police and other officials responded made me feel that it was the Church that was on parade. I got some extraordinary courage while all that was going on. I was not conscious at all about the onlookers on roadside.

After continuos demonstrations in Bihar--which reached a climax on October 22 with the one-day closing of all Christian institutions in the state as a formal protest--the Bihar government reluctantly agreed to a federal police inquiry into the treatment of the priest. That inquiry soon produced the legal demand that Father Christudas be released on bail. To date, the inquiry has produced no other results.

Even if the complaints against him were justified, the public assault on Father Christudas was clearly not a legal response. Yet police officials did nothing to stop that assault--although they were close enough to arrest him when the humiliation was done. However even today, three months after the incident, not a single culprit has been arrested; none of the police officials who stood by, abetting the crime, have been suspended.

OMINOUS BEGINNINGS

The murder of Clarist Sister Rani Maria in Indore, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, in 1995 can now be seen as a precursor to the beheading in Hazaribag. The nun was stabbed over 40 times as she sat on a crowded public bus, while on her way to visit her relatives in the southern Kerala state. The nun had to pay with her life for challenging local money lenders who kept the impoverished tribal people under their bondage.

Such vested interests have had a crucial role in most of the assaults on priests and nuns in the recent months. These powerful interests have the ability to supervise attacks on those who challenge them, and then make sure that the people who carry out those attacks are never brought to justice. The lethargic way in which the Bihar government responded to the Dumka case reinforces a now-familiar pattern.

In a similar incident, two priests and a brother (all members of the same tribal minority) had been killed in Gumla, also in Bihar, in 1994. Their deaths could not be seen in isolation from the tribal protests that were taking place at that time, against the creation of a firing range for wealthy landowners, on land carved out of the Jharkhand tribal heartland.

"Often the (local) administration is of no help. We cannot expect much from them," says Jesuit Father Varkey Perekkat, head of the 3,700-member Jesuit community in South Asia, which boasts 3,500 priests in India. The pattern has long been established. Not a single man was arrested in connection with the murder of another Jesuit, Father Matthew Mannaparambil, in 1982.

Still, from a Christian perspective, it is possible to see these acts of violence as a sign that the Church is making progress in India. The growing number of assaults on Christian social workers is "certainly a matter of serious concern for the Church. But on the other hand, it also signals a positive development," said Margaret Alva, a Catholic and a former federal minister, in a November 27 address before a conference on "Human Rights in India and the Christian Community." Her statement shocked the audience, which included three bishops and four of her fellow members of the federal parliament.

Pointing out that "the country is in the midst of a socio-economic transition," Alva drew attention to the fact that "attacks on peaceful Christian social workers by vested interests show that vested interests have started feeling the impact of our service." The Catholic politician said the Church "need not be unnerved by these assaults and should carry on its prophetic mission to bring social equity and justice in the unjust social order."

Alva pointed out that if similar assaults had been carried out on Muslims, there would have been riots all over the country. Yet again she saw positive implications of that fact. "If we have been able to remain calm despite such grave provocations, it is a credit to us. We remain a peaceful community. That should not deter us in speaking out our grievances. We should stand up and speak. We should make our presence felt"

A NEW CAUTIOUS APPROACH

Endorsing Alva's views, P. C. Thomas, a Catholic member of parliament from Kerala-- the state which accounts for over 65 percent of India's 110,000 nuns and priests--said "it's sad that we could not initiate a debate on this in the parliament due to the latest political developments." The November 27 conference itself had been called to brief Christian parliamentarians on the "anxiety" of the Church. "These assaults are not mere law-and-order problems. There is a deeper conspiracy behind all these. Parents (of nuns and priests working outside Kerala) are a worried lot," said Thomas.

Archbishop Powathil, the president of the Indian bishops' conference president, denied the Church is shying away from open protests "due to fear of reprisals or exposing others to risk." He continued: "It is not a question of making noise. We are doing what we can. We will act according to the needs of the local Church The bishops have their limitations."

However, Bishop Charles Soreng of Hazaribag, who led the funeral service for Father Thomas on October 28, admitted "we are in a dilemma." Bishop Soreng said that "if we do not react, we will be called cowards. But if we get carried away and take to streets, it could provoke others. Many of our priests and nuns are working in vulnerable situations. More than anything, it's now a question of acting intelligently."

Amid such cautious approach by Church leadership, victims of assaults and those who live in dangerous situations say the "trauma" has only made them determined in their mission. When this reporter visited Sister Maria in January 1993--after she had been rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull and broken arms. She, along with another nun and their maids, had been beaten with iron rods by armed men who looted their convent in the Amloh village in the northern state of Punjab. While officials of her congregation officials said the incident was "much more than mere looting"--noting that the intruders damaged the tabernacle in the convent church after beating the nuns--Sister Maria herself preferred to describe the attack as a random criminal act. Peering out of her left eye, since the right eye was swollen shut, she said: "If my superiors permit, I would return to Amloh." She had worked in the village for three years, she explained, and: "I love the people, they are good."

SOLIDARITY BREEDS STRENGTH

Aside from losing two nuns and two priests in cold-blooded murders in last five years, the flourishing Church in the remote northeastern states of India has to live under threats and extortions by ethnic groups. However, determined Church workers say they are "undeterred and not in the least worried" about these handicaps.

"These things do happen. We stand firm because we are here for a cause. We work for the people and God. Nothing can dissuade us from our work," Bishop Joseph Mittathany of Imphal told CWR. Elaborating further, the prelate pointed out that "it's happening to everybody. This is a reflection of the prevailing situation [in the region, where tribal minorities still live in primitive conditions]. The people have great appreciation for our work in education and health care."

Salesian Father George Plathottam, director of Don Bosco Communications in Guwahati, in the Assam state, says the people in the region "appreciate our work." He added that the sacrifices made by colleagues help to inspire religious workers, and continued:

These incidents do not demoralize us. Instead, they make us more determined in our mission. We are well aware of the dangers under which we work and so, these incidents do not shock us.

Whenever any violence breaks out, religious congregations remain in close touch to console the families of the victims (all the victims of the recent assaults in the northeast have been from Kerala). That custom was followed after the demise of 33-year old Salesian Father Philip in 1983. The result was that his father Chakkochan, a grandfather already, vowed to become a priest and to work where his had son died. Last year Chakkochan's perseverance paid off when he was ordained a Salesian priest at the age of 76.

The local Salesian provincial, Father Palathingal could not be contacted after the funeral of Father Jose; he had left for Kerala, over 1,800 miles to the south, to console the parents of the slain priest, who are now left with only one living son. "This kind of solidarity with the families will only inspire the relatives to follow the foot steps of their dear ones," said Father Plathottam.

[AUTHOR ID] Anton Akkara is a free-lance writer based in New Delhi.

[SIDEBAR]

PRIESTS AND RELIGIOUS MURDERED SINCE 1978

Year Name District, State

1. 1978 Father Martinseck Mokameh, Bihar 2. 1980 Father Matthew Mannaparambil Sasaram, Bihar 3. 1980 Father Martin Mezhkunal Gulani, Bihar 4. 1987 Father Adeodalus Meerut, Uttar Pradesh 5. 1990 Sister Sylvia Mumbai, Maharashtra 6. 1990 Sister Priya Mumbai, Maharashtra 7. 1992 Father Matthew Maniachira Imphal, Manipur 8. 1993 Father Louis Moolaveetil Nagpur, Maharashtra 9. 1993 Father V.S. Pakianathan Raiganj, West Bengal 10. 1994 Father Larence Kujur Gumla, Bihar 11. 1994 Father Joseph Dungdung Gumla, Bihar 12 1994 Brothe Anup Indwar Gumla, Bihar 13. 1994 Sister Abhaya Kottayam, Kerala 14. 1995 Sister Rani Maria Indore, Madhya Pradesh 15. 1995 Sister Augustina Kochumattam Tinsukia, Assam 16. 1996 Sister Lilly Bodo Area, Assam 17. 1997 Father A.T. Thomas Hazaribagh, Bihar 18. 1997 Father Jose Nedumattathil Senapati, Manipur