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Christmas mass, protest by Chhattisgarh tribals

ICC Note:
Indian state’s policy does not allow for tribal peoples to be Christian, and is thus confiscating churches on tribal lands despite the fact that those who operate the churches are tribals themselves.

by Nirmala Carvalho
AsiaNews (12/27/06) – Catholics of the Jashpur district in Chhattisgarh state just attended Mass for Christmas and did not hold other celebrations to protest against a government policy that harms the Church and the tribal people.

For generations, tribal people have been occupying and using forest land but the government of Chhattisgarh has said the land does not belong to them but to the government that wants to transfer it. On December 15, the Recognition of Forest Rights Bill was approved to give those who dwell in and who first used forest areas the right to own the land. Under the new legislation, such people would have free use of non-timber produce such as bamboo, honey, wax, herbs, plants, roots and stones) while being prohibited from hunting. But the Bill does not cover dwellers who cultivate land on the outskirts of forests. Christian missionaries have set up many activities for the people in such areas.

On 2 February 2006, the compound wall of St Francis Church, in Patalgaon Parish (Jashpur) was demolished and another Catholic retreat was damaged because they were said to be built illegally on tribal land. Seven priests, three religious sisters and other Catholics were arrested for the alleged acquisition. They were released on bail after much harassment and humiliation.

Mgr Victor Kindo, bishop of Jashpur, told AsiaNews: “This year the Diocese of Jashpur celebrated [Christmas] in a muted manner with the tribals, in communion and solidarity due to the harassment of Church officials… the spirituality of the Christmas feast was prominent in focus, but no other celebrations took place, we rejoiced only spiritually.”

The Administrative Office of the government has opened 215 cases of fraud against the Catholic dioceses for alleged abusive acquisition of tribal land.

Mgr Kindo continued: “Many priests and religious sisters here are tribals and they are routinely summoned to the courts for questioning about our institutions. They are often abused in filthy language and made to wait long hours even beyond the normal working schedule of the court. In solidarity with the Church, the tribals, many of whom are Christians, decided to only focus on the spiritual aspect of Christmas.”

Fr Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India told AsiaNews: “It is quite ironic that the government considers churches and Christian education institutions that are fully owned and administrated by the tribals as non-tribal in status. The question that naturally comes to anyone’s mind is: whose are they? It was the tribals themselves who donated land for the purpose of establishing churches and other institutions and it is tribals who benefit from their activities. The government in Chattisgarh is denying what is clearly in evidence.”

The government has served notices to many Catholic communities to quit their premises, claiming that the churches and other institutions are non-tribal entities. This policy is effectively denying tribals the right to be Christians and to use their land to live their faith and to realize activities like schools for the benefit of the population.

Meanwhile the government is treating like “criminals” all those tribals who oppose its occupation of the land and it has forced many to leave the land where they have always lived.