In India, the Church serves all, fighting discrimination on all fronts

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur was recently appointed by the Catholic Conference of Bishops of India (CBCI) as the Chairman of the Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/ other Backward Castes (BCs). An important part of the Commission’s task is to shape the Church’s policies with regard to the country’s dalits—the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchy, formerly known as ‘untouchables’—who suffer severe discrimination in Indian society. Dalits comprise 65 percent of India’s Catholic population of close to 20 million. A native of Kandhamal, Odisha State, where some 100 Christians were murdered by a Hindu mob in 2008, Bishop Nayak is one of only 12 dalit bishops, out of a total 224.

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur
Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur

Why are Christian (and Muslim) dalits still denied affirmative action, even though the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens?

After independence from England in 1947, the Indian Constitution went into effect in January 1950. It guaranteed equal fundamental rights for all its citizens, irrespective of castes and creed. On Aug. 10, 1950, a Presidential Order went into effect to grant Hindu tribal people and dalits affirmative action benefits to compensate for their low socio-economic status after centuries of neglect and discrimination. Dalits belonging to other religions, however, were not included. Eventually, Buddhist and Sikh dalits were granted the so-called ‘Scheduled Castes’ status along with the benefits. However, Muslim and Christian dalits remain deprived of these rights to this day, despite continuous protests and appeals to the government for the past 60 years.

Previous Governments, mostly run by the Congress Party, did not have the political will to amend the Constitution, even when it had the absolute majority in Parliament. The present BJP government, with its Hindu nationalist ideology, is openly against extending the Constitution’s affirmative action provision to Muslim and Christian dalits.

Is the Church in a position to change the situation? What is the Church’s strategy on this front?

Christians comprise only 2.5 percent of the total population, so, politically, the Church has not been able to do much to challenge the constitutional validity of the 1950 Presidential Order. It must be challenged, as it discriminates purely on the basis of religion, which runs against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution that hold that all citizens must be treated equally—irrespective of caste, creed, gender or religion. The Church’s sustained peaceful protests have not succeeded thus far, though news coverage has brought the issue to the attention of the general public.

As a strategy, the Church is trying to fight it out alongside Muslims and people of goodwill from other faiths and various political ideologies. The Church is also trying to unite all dalits on this issue; unfortunately, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh dalits are concerned that the extension of benefits to Muslims and Christians might reduce their benefits. Finally, the Church approaches the issue from a human rights perspective. The deprivation of dalit Christians is a violation of human rights, a violation by international standards.

 

 

Some believe that if Christian dalits were granted government benefits many Hindu dalits would convert to Christianity. What are the aspects of the Christian life that are attractive to lower-caste Hindus?

The fear of mass conversions to Christianity seems unfounded; it is also another form of degrading dalits to presume they would change their religion to gain material benefits.This has been the strategy of the Hindu mind-set, irrespective of political ideologies: to instil fear in the Hindu majority of a mass exodus. Facts prove that the opposite is true: even though dalit Christians are deprived of government benefits, and even, in some states, suffer discrimination. They still remain faithful in their faith—even to the point of suffering martyrdom. What’s more, when the affirmative action provisions were extended to Buddhists and Sikhs, Muslim and Christian dalits or the Hindu dalits did not join those faiths.

It’s true, however, that Christians are known for their peace-loving, service-minded way of life that respects all people and that is dedicated to the work of mission. Hindu fundamentalists try to prevent or put obstacles in the way of Christian services such as those in the field of education, health care or social services, lest people get attracted and embrace Christianity. Six states have anti-conversion laws in place to prevent any conversions. It is often said and accepted as fact that, though they only account for 2.5 percent of the population, Christians provide 20 percent of national service in various fields—yet, the size of the Christian community has not grown much in India.

 

Can you explain why Hindu nationalists are so hostile to Christianity?

First of all, they associate colonial British rule with Christianity. Relatively few British came to India and yet they ruled it for more than 200 years; the Hindu nationalists fear that if there are more Christians in India, they will rule India again. Christianity is seen as a foreign religion. Secondly, Christianity challenges various tenets and practices of the Hindu religion and Hindus fear of losing their influence.

For example, the Christian faith challenged the age-old practice of sati pratha, by which a widow was burned alive together with the dead body of the husband; Hindu religion held that women have no independent existence apart from men—that widows have no right to exist, to own property or to remarry. That practice is almost fully eradicated today. Secondly, there is the jati pratha (the Castes System), which classifies people according to their birth and treats them as low or high. There are no social relationships allowed among the various castes.

Dalits are considered outcasts or untouchables—even coming under their shadow is considered to make someone impure. The caste system does not allow a person to take up a profession other than the job of the caste or family one is born in. The Church strives to eradicate caste-ism.  It promotes and upholds the equal dignity and rights of every citizen.

The hindutwa ideology espoused by Hindu nationalists is trying to impose cultural nationalism, which calls for one culture, one language and one religion. While faithful to the teachings of Christ, the Church recognizes, respects and promotes the pluralism of cultures and language.

Finally, Hinduism is steeped in many dark beliefs, including the practice of black magic, sorcery, etc., which are used to exploit, torture and blackmail people. The Church, through education and awareness-raising, especially among dalits and tribal people, liberates people from these evil forces.

 

 

What are the bishops doing to combat discrimination of Catholic dalits within the Church itself?

At many national meetings, the bishops of India have issued statements calling for the end of the discrimination of dalits and of caste-ism, not only in the Church but also in society at large. However, caste-ism appears to be deeply rooted in the psyche of many Indians, including Christians. The “tail” of caste-ism survives even after Baptism. Now, by formally adopting the dalit policy in the Church, the Indian bishops have committed to a campaign to empower the dalits and educate all the faithful, reaffirming the equality of all people, and stressing the fact that dalits must be given equal opportunity in various professional and social fields.

How does the tension play out between deep-rooted Hindu notions of purity and the Gospel’s message that all men and women are equally worthy in the eyes of God?

Caste-ism in India is not only part of the Hindu religion—it is part of the Indian culture. Even though the Constitution of India forbids the practice of caste-ism, it still exists; and, sadly,it still exists even among Christians. In the past, as part of a missionary strategy for evangelization, caste-ism was tolerated by some missionaries, and some of that attitude persists today. Christianity is believed to first have been brought by St. Thomas to Kerala and some parts of Tamilnadu; local higher-caste Christians for centuries claimed a direct bloodline to the apostle; because of this caste mentality, the faith remained confined to that region and did not spread to other parts of the country for more than 1500 years. It is only when St. Francis Xavier came to India that Christianity spread.

 

 

You are a dalit yourself; what has been your experience pursuing your vocation in the Church?

I personally did not experience any discrimination in my childhood and even during my seminary formation. Discriminating people according to caste is not only un-Christian; it is also inhuman.  I am happy to be a priest and consider my priesthood to be the greatest gift God has given me for the good of His people. The episcopacy is an added responsibility and I try “to be a happy servant,” which is the motto of my episcopate. Being a dalit, it may be easier for me than for others to understand the concept of a being servant; and as a first generation Christian in my family, my faith in Christ brings me great happiness—as it is still new and still uncontaminated.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.