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Compass Direct (04/05/06) – The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party government of Gujarat state has declined to renew its contract with the Catholic administrators of a leprosy hospital in Ahmedabad, on the grounds that the nuns were “preaching Christianity.”

On Saturday (April 1), officials asked the six sisters of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate to vacate their residential quarters in the Ave Maria Convent, located on the hospital grounds.

“There were six of us in the convent, and five of us worked at the hospital,” a nun identified only as Sister Karuna said. “After a total of 57 years’ service to these ostracized people, we have been asked to leave.”

The Catholic Church has been responsible for the administration of the leprosy hospital since 1949, when the government of what was then Bombay state (Gujarat was formed from the northern and western portions of Bombay state in 1960) invited Jesuit Father Villalonga to establish the facility. The state government agreed to provide funding and a number of disused buildings for the hospital.

An initial five-year contract was extended several times. The last contract expired on Friday (March 31); the sisters had expected that the contract would automatically be renewed.

A few days before the eviction notice was given, however, Sister Karuna stumbled across a letter sent by the state government to Dr. J. Desai, a Hindu doctor at the leprosarium, asking Desai to take charge of the hospital.

Sister Karuna met with the state health commissioner, who said he could do nothing about the contract revocation because it was a political order.

No Forced Religion

State government officials said they would not renew the contract because the nuns were preaching Christianity to the patients.

The French government had bestowed the “Legion D’Honneur,” France ’s highest civilian award, on two of the hospital pioneers, Mother Noemi and Sister Marie Juliette, for their service to leprosy patients.

On Saturday (April 1), however, the Catholic sisters were asked to hand over all properties and funds to the chief medical officer of the hospital.

Sister Karuna denied any attempt to force patients to accept Christianity. “There was a chapel and a prayer hall, but no patient was ever compelled to attend services,” she said. “Now I’m hearing from different sources that we were preaching Christianity, but in fact my agreement barred me from preaching on the hospital premises.”

Patients at the hospital confirmed that they were never forced to pray or attend services.

The nuns have now shifted to a convent eight kilometers (almost five miles) away from the hospital.

“This move is discriminatory,” said Father Cedric Prakash, director of human rights organization Prashant. “It’s as if the state government just discovered that the sisters running the hospital were Christians. Chief Minister Narendra Modi does not want the nuns to be associated with such benevolent ministries.”

Prakash conceded that the state government was technically in charge of the hospital and had the right to award the contract to someone else.

Bishop Thomas Macwan of Ahmedabad, who managed the hospital, said the motives of the state government were clear. “There is absolutely no reason why they should not have renewed this contract save for the fact that we are Christians,” he said.

Dr. John Dayal, national president of the All India Catholic Union, immediately wrote to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to express his concern.

“This is not the average communal riot or victimization which sporadically bursts out, and then dies out,” his letter stated. “This is a sustained terror campaign against our community. It is clear the nuns were fired because of their religion.”

State Health Minister Ashok Bhatt has since claimed there is no need for a leprosy hospital in Gujarat . But Sister Karuna told Compass, “The hospital has 50 resident leprosy patients and more than 100 who are being treated as outpatients. The National Leprosy Eradication Program clearly says that in Gujarat , the incidence of leprosy is approximately one or two people in every 10,000.”

The total population of Gujarat state is just over 50 million.