Again and again we are asked for help in providing bicycles and mopeds for the priests and catechists of the diocese of Eluru in southeast India. For many of the 1,150 villages of the diocese where the Catholic faithful live are accessible only via narrow, unmade tracks and the priests and catechists would otherwise have to spend hours on foot, walking from one village to another. At the same time, a car would be no use, since the narrow tracks are unsuitable for them. Hence, a moped or a bicycle is an ideal way of saving time and energy and providing a more intensive ministry for the people.
Success Story: 4 Motorcycles for pastoral & socio-educational work & evangelization in the villages of Eluru Vicariate.
For one thing, the faithful need pastoral support. Many have not long been Christians and need intensive support and accompaniment if the faith is to put down deep roots within them and enable them to grow into the life of the Church. At the same time, however, they need a great deal of help in the needs of their everyday lives. There is deep poverty in the region; most people work as day labourers and live from hand to mouth. Even the children have to work in the fields of the big landowners, herding the cattle of the rich or running themselves ragged as message bearers. Most cannot even think of attending school. Entire families live in tiny grass huts, without running water or any modern conveniences. On average, these families have to live on half a Euro a day, and sometimes they are cheated even of these paltry wages, so that the whole family has to go to bed on an empty stomach.
Thanks to the 3,200 Euros donating by our benefactors, we have been able to provide four mopeds for the diocese, so that the priests and catechists can now more easily reach these villages and bring the people the help they need. Bishop Jaya Rao Polimera extends his heartfelt thanks to all our benefactors and promises his prayers for all who have helped!
India has just begun its electoral process, which will take place in seven separate stages between 11 April and 19 May this year. Fears that this, the most populous democracy in the world, might end up becoming a theocratic Hindu nation have strengthened recently, in light of the fact that the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) and its president Narendra Modi are seeking a second mandate. During its present term in office there has been an increase in interreligious violence, according to the report on Religious Freedom Worldwide by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). The figures speak for themselves: in 2016 a total of 86 people were killed and 2371 injured in 703 separate incidents of sectarian (Hindu fundamentalist) violence; in 2017 the figures were 111 killed and 2384 wounded in 822 separate reported incidents.
The most recent attack – on March 26 – took place in Tamil Nadu against a Catholic school, the Little Flower Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem, when a crowd of Hindu fundamentalists smashed up the school and even attempted to strangle the religious sisters who were running the school. ACN journalist Maria Lozano interviewed Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, auxiliary bishop of Ranchi and Secretary General of the Indian Bishops’ Conference and asked him about the elections and the gravity of this recent incident.
ACN: We have heard of the increase in attacks by Hindu fundamentalists against religious minorities in other parts of India, especially in the north of the country, but the brutal violence of this recent incident has shocked us. Was there any particular reason for the attack?
Over the last year or so there has been a rise in fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu. Above all it has been the evangelical or Protestant so-called “house churches” that have complained of these attacks. There is an activist, who publishes on the web stories of groups of Christians being beaten up while praying in their house churches or some little church structure destroyed. But as the Catholic Church we have not had this type of open attack until this time, at least not such a big one, we have had small, small things. Two years ago there was a Good Friday incident; a mob did not allow us to worship in one place. So we have had incidents here and there. But the Protestant churches or Protestant groups or these smaller denominations have had a lot of problems over the last two years. So it did not come to me as a surprise that eventually we would be attacked. But that it took place on such a large scale is really frightening.
ACN: It must also have been an enormous shock for the sisters of the Franciscan Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who have been running the school for 74 years now. What is the present situation in Chinnasalem? And how are the sisters faring?
It is a small town. And the sisters have been doing a lot of this work for very, very poor children. And in fact the hostel, the boarding school can take girls who come from very poor areas and poor families. I spoke to the sisters a few days ago and I spoke to the Archbishop also, and they say for the moment that some people have been arrested and we are waiting for some more people to be arrested. But for me it is not what happens after the incident. For me the whole thing we have to question is how such incidents can even come about in a civilised society.
ACN: But apart from the incident itself and notwithstanding the gravity of it, are you concerned about the social dimension that this kind of attack implies?
How is so much hatred being spread in society and how can we stop this hatred being propagated – that exactly is the question. There are groups that are promoting hatred and these groups are not being stopped, neither in social media nor in actual life, and they seem to be getting political privilege, patronage, and that is my worry, even political authorisation, and that is my problem. It is not that these small groups make demands against us or make charges against us or accuse us. The problem is that political leaders are actually encouraging them.
In 2016 a total of 86 people were killed and 2371 injured in 703 separate incidents of sectarian (Hindu fundamentalist) violence.
ACN: Do you think this increase in incidents in the last year is also related to the elections?
It might be related to the elections but I think it is going long-term now. I have a very simple philosophy on this. Once you plant the seed of hatred, once you bring the beast, the animal of anger, hatred, violence, that animal cannot be controlled. And this is my worry. All those who are spreading this hatred must know what harm they are doing to society and that it will become difficult to bring back things under control; and if it cannot be brought back under control we will have a problem.
ACN: But this problem is already damaging especially to the minorities in India…
Yes it is the minorities, but today I was just thinking of that beautiful poem attributed to a German Lutheran pastor: ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me’. So we use this now today because first you start with one minority and then the second. the Muslims are under attack, the dalits are under attackand we are under attack, we don’t know who next.
ACN: Does that mean then that in the end this nationalist fundamentalism which the political leaders are promoting will actually damage the whole country?
We must say one thing in all fairness. A large Hindu majority, and a large Indian majority of whatever religion we belong to, we are tolerant, we accept each other, and we live with each other, we have been living for thousands of years together, this is a multi-cultural, multi-religious diverse society, and we’ve been living with each other and enriching each other. Now we suddenly come to a situation where certain groups are getting strong and spreading this hatred around and that is not acceptable, because eventually it is the nation that is going to suffer from this. Not just the minorities.
ACN: Is India heading towards becoming a theocratic nation like Pakistan?
In 1947 two countries were born, Pakistan and India. Pakistan decided that it would be a country founded on a religion, Islam; our founding fathers in India decided we would not be based on any religion or any one culture but we would be multi-cultural, pluri-religious and with diverse languages and regions. And the country has lived peacefully after that.
ACN: ¿But who are these new people who want to change what the founding fathers decided, and why?
These are certain fundamentalist groups which come up in every society and fundamentalist groups always damage society. But when they start getting overt or covert support from the others then they become dangerous.
ACN: What has been the reaction of the Christian community on hearing this news? Surely these incidents must make them feel very frightened?
We as Christians, we trust in the Lord, we are not afraid. When I asked the sisters ‘Are you afraid?’ they said ‘No, we shall continue our work’. I think that is our spirit, we shall continue our work, we will not be afraid of anyone. We think of Jesus who told us ‘Be afraid of the one who can take care of your soul rather than those who can destroy your body’. So that is our basic principle. I don’t think anyone is frightened and we will go ahead with our work, we will continue serving the poorest of the poor. We know that this will bring us difficulties, this will bring us persecution, and this will bring us even hardships, but we will continue doing our work for the poor, for God and for Jesus.
ACN: One last question: do you believe that it is precisely the fact that you are working with the poorest and most socially discriminated against is one of the reason why some people don’t seem to like the work of the Church?
We have a saying in my own local language Konkani: ‘Stones are thrown only at a tree that bears fruit’. You don’t throw stones at a useless tree, only at a tree that bears fruit. So I think that one of the reasons we are under attack is that we are serving the poor, somebody does not like that we are serving the poor and this I believe is the real reason why the fundamentalists do not like us.
The far northeast of India is linked to the rest of the country only by a narrow corridor of land. It is one of the poorest regions in India and an area of frequent unrest.
In relative terms the Catholic Church is quite young here. It began to spread here only around the end of the 19th century – and in many regions only in the last few decades. There are around 2 million Catholics living in this region, most of whom belong to the ethnic minorities. Owing to an influx of Bengali migrants from Bangladesh, the proportion of Muslims in the population has grown much faster in recent decades in northeast India than in other parts of the country.
One of the more recent dioceses in northeast India is that of Bongaigaon, in the state of Assam. There are around 67,000 Catholics here among a total population of some 64 million. Most of these Catholics belong to the indigenous Bodo peoples. However, in the diocese as a whole at least a dozen different languages are spoken.
Whereas in the past it was foreign missionaries who first announced the gospel here, today the Church is increasingly represented by indigenous vocations. Currently there are 23 young men from the diocese of Bongaigaon who are preparing for ordination as priests. They themselves come overwhelmingly from poor, indigenous families who can do little to contribute financially to the formation of their sons. ACN has stepped in to help with a promise of 9,200 Euros.
The diocese of Rayagada is situated in the south of the Indian state of Odisha (formerly also known as Orrisa), which became notorious 10 years ago for the violent attacks against Christians there. It is also the fourth poorest federal state in India.
Within the territory of the diocese there are just 50,000 Catholics among a total population of approximately 5.5 million people. Most of these Catholics come from the poorest and most socially excluded levels of society and many live a bare subsistence existence, gathering fruits and firewood from the forests. Most are illiterate and if they are forced to borrow and fall into debt, they face exorbitant interest rates from the moneylenders, with the result that their families fall into a form of debt slavery.
The diocese of Rayagada covers a vast area of well over 15,000 square miles (40,000 km²), and many of the villages lie in remote corners in the forests or valleys. There are just 24 parishes, also very large in area, so that the distances to be covered are considerable.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the 30 catechists play an important role. They visit the faithful in the villages and are frequently, so to speak, the „visible face of the Church“ in places where the priests only rarely manage to get. But even for the catechists many of the villages are still very difficult to reach. Until recently, the catechists had to make these long and difficult journeys on foot. But recently, thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, ACN has been able to help Bishop Alphinar Senapati to provide each of them with a bicycle. Now they are able to reach the faithful much more quickly and easily. You contributed 1,630 Euros for this purpose. Our heartfelt thanks to all who helped us!
In Northeast India the Catholic Church is still – relatively – young. In 2016 it celebrated 120 years of ministry here. However, in many parts of this region Catholic missionaries were only able to enter the region during the second half of the 20th century. This is an isolated and underdeveloped region, marked by political unrest and conflicts, by deep poverty and many other problems. But the Church here is very much alive and vital, and by now there are almost 2 million Catholics in the region, while the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life is growing.
Help for the training of 28 young religious women in India
The Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod have been working in Northeast India for 37 years now, and recently they established a new regional province for the congregation in the city of Guwahati, in the state of Assam. The congregation has 18 convents in the region, with 96 professed sisters. They care in particular for physically and mentally handicapped children and for sick people generally. They also help young girls from poor family backgrounds who are unable to continue their school education, teaching them useful practical skills such as needlework, sewing and darning, including handmade decorations, so they can later support themselves financially. They also help families and women, giving encouragement and counselling and striving to convey the love of God for all by their lives. Precisely because the Church in this region is still so relatively young, there is a great deal still to be done to help the faith become deeply rooted in people‘s hearts and souls.
At present there are 28 religious sisters still in formation. Like most of the Catholics in this region, they too come from poor families and from the ethnic minorities. The congregation needs financial help in order to be able to provide them with a solid spiritual and vocational formation. Some of them will even pursue university studies, to help them better confront the many challenges they face. ACN is proposing a contribution of 16,800 Euros.
Young Father Ravi Kumar Devarapalli of the diocese of Eluru is delighted at his new moped, which he has been able to purchase thanks to the help of ACN‘s benefactors, who gave him 1200 Euros. Now it is much easier for him to visit the Catholic faithful in the surrounding villages.
The parish mission where he works is situated in an underdeveloped, rural region. He has no presbytery of his own, so he has to live in the bishop‘s house. Until now he managed to visit his central parish by using public transport, but in order to reach the villages in the outlying hilly countryside, he had to use a bicycle and battle his way over rough and difficult tracks. This was both exhausting and time-consuming, and besides, some of the villages are a long way from the parish center. There are nine of these villages in which people have already been baptized, and some of them are up to 10 miles (15 km) away, while the other three villages – in which the people are still preparing for baptism – are even up to twice that distance – 20 miles (30 km) away. Almost all the people have to work hard all day, as landless agricultural workers, day laborers or household servants, so that the priest can only visit them in the evenings. As a result, Father Ravi often had to cycle late at night along these long and difficult tracks. And on Sundays and holy days, he would often arrive late for Holy Mass, having been unable to make it on time on his bicycle.
“The people here are very poor and simple, but they are very open to the message of Christ”, Father Ravi explains. But the sects are also beginning to arrive in the region, and if the Church fails, for lack of resources, to provide adequate pastoral care for the people, they may well fall an easy prey to the sects, who often have considerably more money and personnel and who often take people in with their easy and unrealistic promises. But now, thanks to his new moped, Father Ravi can visit the people much more frequently.
“I am very happy to be able to exercise my priestly ministry here” says Father Ravi, who was ordained to the priesthood only in 2016. And he asks us to convey his thanks to our benefactors and tell them this: “Many people make decisions that change people‘s lives. Thank you for being such people! Your generosity will help me and our diocese to do the same for others. Thanks to your generosity we can go on helping to improve the lives of the Catholic faithful, above all in a spiritual sense. Thank you again for your goodness and kindheartedness!”