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AsiaNews/UCAN (12/13/05) – In the village of Roopapali , about 1,400 kilometres south-east of New Delhi , more than 40 Catholic families had to abandon their faith in favour of Hinduism.

“The sarpanch (village chief) told me that I would not be able to continue doing my work if I remained Christian,” said Kaithabai Surjha, kindergarten teacher.

Her husband Hemlal, who is a farmer, said he converted to Hinduism for otherwise he would not get government subsidies for Dalits, the outcaste group at the bottom of India ’s caste system, after the government decided to freeze financial aid for Catholics.

The couple, who had a Catholic marriage and who had their three children baptised, said they have asked their parish priest “not to visit and not to send catechists to our village.”

“They were threatened,” said Abraham Narayan, a catechist, who is related to some of the converted families.

Madhu Nag, another catechist who used to visit the village, said that the archdiocese had promoted many initiatives in Roopapali because of its substantial Catholic community. Catholicism, he explained, arrived in the area about 75 years ago when missionaries helped locals with food during a drought.

Both catechists noted that local Christians had registered their children at school as Hindus to benefit from government scholarships given to Hindus.

The Indian Constitution guarantees special benefits to underdeveloped Dalit groups, listed as “scheduled castes”, to help in their socioeconomic advancement. These benefits include quotas on admissions to educational institutions and seats in legislative bodies.

Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh Dalits are entitled to these benefits at present. Christians and Muslims are excluded on the ground that their religions do not recognise the caste system.

Though all the village’s Catholic families renounced Christianity, the Kumar family, who belong to the Mennonite Church , refused to embrace Hinduism.

“We have been Christians for generations,” said Moosa Kumar, who has a medical practice in the village.

“We have been ostracized socially, economically and religiously,” Gyanendra Kumar, Moosa’s son, said. But “we are not afraid of the persecution, because he (Jesus) is with us,” he explained, adding that he has decided not to take any government aid reserved for Dalits.

The parish priest, Father Swaminathan, refused to comment on what was happening in the village.

The two catechists said that troubles trouble began when three Christians and one Hindu contested the local election last January for a reserved Dalit seat. The Hindu candidate Rabbi Chowhan threatened to expose his rival Christian candidates for appropriating statutory rights.

After the elections he said he would not allow Christian children to register as Hindus so as to enrol in schools, and would ask the government to investigate Christians who secured jobs or loans under government concessions for Dalit.

The state’s ruling pro-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is investigating Chowhan’s complaints.