By Inés San Martín
Rome, September 14, 2019: Despite guidelines supporting Dalit Christians – formerly known as “untouchable” – not every church leader is working in their defense, according to one Indian bishop.
“We still have to clean up our own house,” Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur told Crux. “In some places, sadly, the caste system is still there, in spite of us being Christians, and Dalit Christians suffer because of it still. It’s a very scandalous image of the Church, but it’s there.”
Bishop Nayak heads the Commission for Dalits and Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, and spoke with Crux in Rome, where he’s been for the past week to participate in the ad limina visit, a semi-regular pilgrimage that bishops from every country make to Rome to meet with Pope Francis and the heads of different Vatican dicasteries.
Crux: As you mentioned, the way the ad limina works has changed quite a bit. The Vatican offices are listening more to the local churches. What are you planning on telling them?
Bishop Nayak: First thing will be to share my appreciation for what they’re doing for the local churches. And also reassure them that we are all together, that we share the mission entrusted to the Holy Church. We all have different responsibilities, but we’re together. We appreciate particularly the support with formation in the third world country churches.
This year, we had Cardinal Peter Turkson participate in an encounter for the Dalit Christians, and his presence was a great boost for it, a great support as we struggle with this issue.
A northern state in India recently passed a new ant-conversion law, that many see as a direct attack against Christians …
They’re bringing anti-conversion laws at a national level, but many states already have these laws, and have had them since the 1960s. But there are hardly any cases against a priest for converting a person, because nobody converts anybody, it’s a person’s choice.
You and I know that to be the truth, but authorities don’t always see it this way ….
Right, but look at it from this perspective. The Catholic Church offers so many services in India: Schools, leproseries, health care centers. Should we close these services? The government can accuse us of offering these services to force people into conversion. Anything can be interpreted as a conversion attempt, but then they would force us to close all of our services, and nobody wants that.
But do you see any further hardship for the Church with this national anti-conversion law?
I don’t see so much of a hardship, but a continuation of persecution that we’ve faced. But we also have to trust in our judiciary system: If someone is accused of something, you have to go to the court.
Our challenge is that even in the case of the Kandhamal violence, we had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get permission to help our own people, because the local judges wouldn’t allow us to. We had to fight it out.
That’s still happening today: We have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. This is the case of rights for Dalit Christians, that has been in the Court for over 15 years. They represent some 20 million people, who are suffering exclusion in the name of religion, but nobody seems to be taking it seriously and the government is lingering.
However, the information we have is that in the month of September there will be a hearing.
A hearing in the Supreme Court about the persecution of Christian Dalits?
Not the persecution, but the exclusion of Christian Dalits. They are deprived from all the benefits that other Dalits are getting, but no Christians, who are deprived from what is called affirmative actions.
[Editor’s Note: Dalits and Backward Classes in India benefit from affirmative action policies, including in access to education and other government benefits. However, if the Dalit is a Christian or Muslim, they are not eligible for these benefits.]
Going back to the anti-conversion laws. My understanding is that the situation is even worse for women and girls. What can the Church do to help them?
First of all, education and empowerment, of both girls and boys. It’s different in every diocese, but I can tell you that in mine we’re making strides on education, and quality education, most of which is in English because it gives many more opportunities to the children to then continue their educations beyond high schools.
We cannot think of equality without giving equal opportunities, which is why we’re focusing so much on offering good, affordable education.
What you’re saying is that in India, Dalit Christians face a more precarious situation than either other Dalits or other Christians. Do you think the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in India understands this?
There hasn’t been so much a demanding from the government by the bishops until recently, and then it’s up for the government to decide what to do. At a bishops’ conference level, we released a series of policies on Dalit Christians, but in the end, it’s up to each bishop and each diocese to guarantee that these don’t remain as just a document. And on the bishops doing more at a local level, I believe there’s still much to be done.
We still have to clean up our own house. In some places, sadly, the caste system is still there, in spite of us being Christians, and Dalit Christians suffer because of it still. It’s a very scandalous image of the Church, but it’s there.
We have to work on education, and also in promoting the participation of Dalit Christians in the life of the parishes, so that everyone understands that they too have much to contribute to the Church. Education and opportunity to participate, and also leadership. For the latter, we’ve opened a leadership school to prepare Dalit Christians to take government jobs.
How’s the cause of the Kandhamal martyrs coming along?
It’s still at the local level. It has to be brought out, and only then will the case be pushed. I think that somehow it’s not moving from the local level. We need expertise, to collect all the information, but it’s going to have to come from other dioceses, because we don’t really have the formation to make sure we have everything needed.
In February, there was a major meeting in the Vatican to address the protection of minors, and Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias played a key role, as he was tapped by the pope to be one of the four organizers of the event. Do you believe that the Church in India is responding adequately to the crisis of clerical abuse of children?
At a conference level, we’ve had our policies for several years now. It wasn’t always the case, but now it’s clear that there’s an obligation to report any cases to the police, not only because the Church said so, but because the government recently made it compulsory for everybody, particularly a person in a position of leadership, to report any suspicion to authorities.
If there’s a crime, it doesn’t matter who committed it, they have to face the consequences. But on this matter too, at the end of the day, it also depends on each bishop. It’s not about the Catholic Church lacking policies: the fact that the laws are there, doesn’t yet mean a bishop will follow them. And we have to work on this. And right now, administratively, there’s nothing between a bishop and the pope, we need a body at a national level that can help when a bishop doesn’t know what to do or is not complying with the norms. There’s the question of the metropolitan, and it becoming effective is important, but there should also be something at a national level.
Are you going to ask the pope to visit India?
Yes! We’re very much hopeful but also realistic about it, because we’re not sure if the government is open to it, but we always ask for it!