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Indian Christians pressured to abandon faith for gov’t benefits

ICC Note:
Indian government policies deny aid to Christians from low-caste backgrounds because Christianity does not recognize the caste system.

UCAN (1/8/07) – Christians in a central Indian region are increasingly abandoning their faith to avail of government benefits meant for the advancement of low-caste people, church workers say.

The Indian Constitution allows special benefits to people of low-caste origin to help their social advancement. Christians are denied these benefits on the ground that their religion does not recognize the caste system.

Many Christian Gada people in Chhattisgarh state are leaving their faith to get concessions in education and government jobs, which have special quotas for low-caste groups, catechist Saleem Kanwar told UCA News.

The trend has increased in the past two years after the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) came to power in the state. It began to identify Christians with the intention of denying them these benefits, said Kanwar, who works in Sankra parish of Raipur Aarchdiocese.

According to Kanwar, many Christians are worried and are losing interest in their religion. “They are ready to renounce the faith,” he said, adding that he finds villagers least interested in religious matters when he visits them and some have told him his visits have adversely affected them.

The trend is evident in the archdiocese’s Fuljher region, 1,175 kilometers (about 730 miles) southeast of New Delhi. Some Gada here became Catholics more than 70 years ago, but they continued to enroll their children in schools as dalit (low-caste) Hindus.

However, BJP government officials have instructed village headmen not to give Gada Christians certificates identifying them as low-caste people. Earlier, village headmen issued such certificates since schools and other records show these Gada as low-caste Hindus. The certificates are necessary to apply for the statutory benefits.

A Sankra parishioner, Jogi Tandi, was refused some land certificates simply because he “was a Christian.” He told UCA News he had to remove pictures of Jesus Christ in his house and attend a reconversion ceremony some Hindu outfits conducted to get low-caste status and legally occupy the land.

The administration is “indirectly making the Christians Hindus,” bemoans Father Joseph Pullankav, parish priest for Sankra. The government policy removes their eligibility to apply for jobs with reserved quotas for low-caste people, such as teaching in government schools. They also are denied bank loans and scholarships reserved for low-caste people, the priest explained.

Some Catholics in Kisdi village of Baloda parish have submitted affidavits with the village council announcing their decision to return to Hinduism, village catechist Suresh Bagh told UCA News.

Murlidhar Tandi, a Catholic schoolteacher, laments that his people are “losing the government grant and the church is doing nothing.”

Some 10,000 Gada Catholics lived in seven parishes of the archdiocese, but many have deserted their faith after the 1980s, when the church stopped giving them material benefits through Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the social action arm of the U.S. Catholic Church.

Some Christians who have registered themselves as Hindus to qualify for government concessions are afraid to profess their faith publicly, said St. Anne’s Sister Faustina, who works in Sankra parish.

A former religious candidate, Anita Sona of Paipara village, registered as a Hindu to get the certificates needed to get a teaching job in a government-run kindergarten.

Vinod Nand of Baelmundi village removed Christian pictures from his house and stopped going to church so he could get a reserved job. His sister, however, is an aspirant nun. Although Nand and his wife, Susheela, have obtained the Hindu low-caste certificate, Susheela said they “have not renounced Jesus.”

Catechist Purendar Sagar told UCA News that 30 baptized Gada families in Baelmundi village were denied certificates, so their representatives said they all were Hindus at a later meeting in the village with government officials.

Catholics in the village, who were baptized more than 40 years ago, have become indifferent to the Christian faith, Sagar said, adding that “nobody comes for the prayers” he conducts on Sundays in the village chapel.

Catholics of Nanakpali village, which has a large number of Catholics, have requested nuns not to visit them in religious habits because they have told officials they are Hindus, says Pallottine Father Benjamin Behera, parish priest of Kutela, the oldest parish in the area.