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While Telangana CM claims Dalits who convert to Christianity get ‘respect they were denied’, the ground reality is different. Here is how

From denying a space for burial to having a separate Dalit Church, the condition of Dalits in Christianity brings to light the deep-rooted and discriminatory caste system that prevails

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao in a media interaction claimed that Dalits convert to Christianity to get the respect that they were denied (in Hinduism).

“If Dalits are converting to Christianity, it’s our fault that we’re unable to protect them. When they convert to Christianity, they’re getting respect denied to them as Dalit. I’m a Hindu & I feel bad when I see that Dalits are still suffering due to poverty,” he said.   

However, Rao’s statement is far from the ground reality. A little research into the condition of Dalits in Christianity in India paints a very different picture. From denying a space for burial to having a separate Dalit Church, the condition of Dalits in Christianity brings to light the deep-rooted and discriminatory caste system that prevails.

Caste-based discrimination continues 

The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front in 2018 had submitted a report and registered a protest on the discrimination against Dalits and rampant practice of the caste system within the Church.

The report divided the plight of Dalit Christians into segments such as – denial of priesthood to Dalit Christians and discrimination against Dalit Christians with special emphasis on the reported atrocities, including untouchability, committed against Dalit Christians in the Sivaganga diocese.

The report talked about the practice of constructing separate chapels in the same village for Dalits, the practice of caste in the formation of parishes, denial of the share for the Dalit Christians in the administration of the parish. To add to it, the Dalit Christians were denied employment opportunities, caste considerations while providing facilities and denied priesthood for Pallar Dalit Christians.

Catholic activists upset over the appointment of non-Dalit bishop

Earlier this month, Catholic activists in India registered their protest against the appointment of a non-Dalit as the bishop of Salem in the state of Tamil Nadu. 

As per a report, Father Devasagaya Raj, former national secretary of the Commission for Scheduled Castes at the Indian bishops’ conference, highlighted that out of 17 bishops in the state, only one is from the Dalit community.

“How many years it will take for the crying voices of the Dalits to reach Vatican?” he asked grieving at the new appointment.

“Dalits who are marginalized and majority in Tamil Nadu have been pleading to the Vatican to appoint Dalit Bishops in 6 vacant dioceses,” he added. 

“It is really caste atrocity going on silently in the Catholic Church”

M. Mary John, the president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) and the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC) said, “This almost exclusion of Dalit Catholics from the Catholic hierarchy is continuing traditionally.”

“Dalit Christians now sense a conspiracy by the hierarchy only to scuttle the appointment of Dalit bishops and archbishops. It is a breach of trust by them. It is really caste atrocity going on silently in the Catholic Church, that too with the blessing of the Holy See,” he added.

Church a very undemocratic institution

Jesuit Father A. X. J. Bosco, a Dalit human rights activist exclaimed, “Though the Church is a very undemocratic institution, with the rigid hierarchical system, yet, since it is from Jesus Christ, the Liberator and it proclaims the gospel of love and service, we expect at least a minimal listening to the voice of the oppressed, the downtrodden and powerless.”

“Though the Catholic Bishops Conference of India Dalit Empowerment Policy says that caste is a sin, it is a scandal that the leaders of the Church continue to cherish the caste system and do not seem to see that the caste goes against the very basic tenets of Christianity,” added the priest.

Separate burial ground

BBC had earlier reported on how Dalit Christians were allocated a separate space for burial by building a wall, with the upper-caste converts being buried on the other side. Father Lourdunathan Yesumariyan, a Jesuit, practising lawyer and Dalit-Christian activist had remarked, “The failure to remove the wall only helps cement caste feelings.”

As per the report, while two Catholic priests had demolished a small part of the wall, it was re-built by the influential land-owning upper-caste Christian group. Father Yesumariyan also highlighted that in places where Dalit Christians are the majority, they often struggle to get the top job.

In another report from 2016, it was revealed that Dalits have separate cemetery and funeral carts and are not allowed to use the common road leading to the church. In some churches, the body of Dalits are not allowed for rituals, it added. 

Separate entrances and toilets for Dalit Christians in church

Professor Nick Gier while sharing an anecdote from his earlier days spent in India, narrated the incident of one Johnson Roosevelt Petta. 

Gier in his recent article revealed, “I was amazed to learn that Johnson was a Dalit Christian, and he described to me the church he attended in Hyderabad. A heavy dark curtain hung down the center and there were separate entrances and toilets for Dalit worshippers. Every Sunday the high-caste minister led “integrated” services.

Dalit Catholic leaders threaten to start their own church

Raising a strong voice demanding an end to casteism and discrimination against Dalits in the Catholic Church, the Dalit Catholic leaders across India had threatened to start a new church if their demand is not met.

Franklin Caesar Thomas, coordinator of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC) had said, “If the Vatican does not immediately remove the discriminatory process of bishop selection that neglects qualified Dalit priests, we could announce our own Indian Dalit Catholic Church or the Indian Dalit Catholic Rite.”

“From now onwards we will have national and international conventions to press our demand to end casteism and discrimination against Dalits in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, our brethren are suffering in both the Church and society,” informed another member.

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