The Daughters of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple are an Italian congregation, founded in the 19th century. Their particular mission is the care of children and young girls, and the congregation is present today in Italy, India, Djibouti and Somalia, running schools, boarding schools, orphanages and leprosy centres and also caring for the elderly.

The Daughters of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple are an Italian congregation, founded in the 19th century.

The Daughters of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple are an Italian congregation, founded in the 19th century.

In India for example, in the town of Dhabhagudam in the diocese of Eluru, the sisters run a boarding school where they teach between 140 and 150 children from the remote villages of the jungle region. For children such as these, this is the only way they can possibly attend school. The people of the region are extremely poor, often working as day labourers and living precariously from hand to mouth. Very few of them can even read or write, and alcohol abuse is widespread, causing devastation to the lives of many families. The children too would be condemned to an equally precarious existence but for the presence of the sisters, who have given them the opportunity to attend school and learn. The fruits of their apostolate are very evident, with falling illiteracy rates, less child labour and a decrease in the number of child marriages. All in all, the awareness is increasingly gaining ground among the people that education is the key to a better future, at least for their children.

India: a new water well for a boarding school run by Italian sisters in the diocese of Eluru.

India: a new water well for a boarding school run by Italian sisters in the diocese of Eluru.

The sisters had a problem, however. Their one and only water supply was being used not only by themselves and the boarding school but also by the surrounding population, and above all by elderly people from the neighbourhood who were dependent on the sisters‘ water supply, leading to a situation that was becoming increasingly problematic. Now, thanks to our generous benefactors, we were able to provide 7700 Euros to provide the sisters with an additional water supply. They send their heartfelt thanks to you all.

Code: 317-05-19

The parliamentary elections in India ended a few days ago. The nationalist ruling party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprisingly won the world’s largest democratic election – nearly 900 million voters. According to a source close to the Church, “the victory of Modi is a source of frustration and fear to the minorities in India.”

“The five years with Narendra Modi in power have brought many concerns and been extremely difficult for us. We are fearful that the next five years to come will be still worse.” This was the reaction of one source who spoke to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, but who prefers to remain anonymous for reasons of security.

Narendra Modi pays tributes to Veer Savarkar.

Narendra Modi pays tributes to Veer Savarkar.

“The fact that the Hindu nationalist BJP party has won so overwhelmingly is a warning signal for us, since it shows that Hindu nationalism is growing and the minorities – both the Christians and the Muslims – often find ourselves abandoned in the face of social injustice and discriminated against even quite openly for religious reasons. But also because the Indian economy has been going downhill in recent years and the poor are now even poorer than before. The poorest classes are being overlooked and the rich are the only ones who have benefited”, the same source explained.

“Hindu nationalism does not want to see any changes in the social structures”, the source told ACN, “and many people in India are currently living in a state of semi-slavery. Those belonging to the lowest classes are used and exploited like slave labour.” One of the few institutions striving to change this situation is the Catholic Church, “and this why we are the target of discrimination and oppression”.

A parishioner of Saint Joseph Parish in Bihar State.

A parishioner of Saint Joseph Parish in Bihar State.

According to the same source, many people in India are in a state of shock. “We cannot quite believe what has happened. Even in those states and districts where surveys suggested the outlook was less favourable for Modi, in the end his party gained many more seats than had been predicted.” In addition to reports in some of the media which have spoken of manipulation of the electronic voting system, there have also been allegations of vote buying. This was also confirmed by the contact who spoke to ACN. “I also saw how hundreds of destitute day labourers were called together just a few days before the elections and how they were each given 3000 Rupees on behalf of the Nationalist People’s Party.”

ACN’s contact concluded with an appeal for prayers for his country and added, “It is very dangerous to speak against the government; almost nobody dares to do so nowadays, since they have converted themselves into an authoritarian party. But I want people to know what things are like for us, since the world needs to know that the situation is a bad one and that we are afraid. These have already been five years filled with fear, and now we are asking ourselves what the future is going to hold for us?”

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.

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.

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!

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
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ABOUT US

Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.