Pope urged to discuss Dalit Christians with Indian bishops

By Matters India Reporter

New Delhi, September 9, 2019: On the eve Indian bishops’ Ad Limina Apostolorum visit to the Vatican, a senior Dalit leader requested Pope Francis to speak to Church leaders on the plight of Dalit Christians.

“Now, at the eve of the Ad Limina visit to Rome by our Indian Bishops we have taken some efforts to draw attention to our Dalit Christians’ problem and request the urgent intervention of the Pope. Our main request and appeal to Pope for his intervention to make the Catholic hierarchy in India, that is, the bishops and superiors of religious congregations, to take responsibility with accountability to eradicate casteism, untouchability and discrimination of Dalits within the Catholic Church,” said Dr. Mary John, president and Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM).

As part of their Ad Limina visit, some 200 bishops from India, in three separate groups, will call on Pope Francis in Rome between September 13 and October 3. The bishops include from West Bengal, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab and other states.

Bishops from all over the world undertake the obligatory once-in-five-year Ad Limina visit to the Vatican at regular intervals. Such visits include a visit to the tombs of the Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, and a meeting with the Pope to report on the state of their dioceses and meet all other key departments of the Vatican. It is separate from other trips a bishop might make to the Vatican, such as to attend a synod.

When asked why John, founding leader of DCLM, appealed pope Francis to speak on Dalits to Indian Bishops during their Ad Limina visit, he told Matters India that casteism, untouchability and caste discrimination Dalit Christians continue in the Catholic Church in India for centuries.

“Only during the past three decades Dalit Christians are vociferously raising their voices against it with the DCLM taking the leading role, demanding equal rights and representation. But the caste dominant Catholic Hierarchy in India does not respond positively, instead, they actively resist. So Dalit Christians are now forced to take up public struggles to raise the issue which the Pope needs to know and understand the true Situation,” John said.

During the Ad Limina visit by the Bishops, Pope discusses with them about the situation in their local Church, the main concerns and issues. This is the time the Pope can give his mind, give them advise and direction and even give them Papal exhortation on some serious issue affecting the Church and its people, he explained.

Dalit which means “broken” or “downtrodden”, denotes former “untouchables” who are so low in ‎social status ‎that they were considered outcasts or outside the rigid caste system of Hindu society.

Dalits form the bulk (about two thirds) of India’s Christian community, that makes up 2.3 per ‎cent of the ‎country’s some 1.3 billion population. ‎ ‎

“Unfortunately, we know that the truth about the issue of casteism and discrimination of Dalits in Catholic Church is not spoken to the Pope by the Indian Bishops. But it is an issue gravely affecting Dalits who constitute the majority of about 65% in the Catholic Church as well as the dignity of the Mother Church that stands for justice and equality of the oppressed and poor all over the world. Certainly Pope would speak to the bishops if he gets to know the truth. Pope is the highest authority over the Catholic Church world over, so we the victim Dalit Christians try to inform the Pope and urge him to address the bishops on this issue during their Ad Limina visit in Rome this September 2019,” John added.

John said that DCLM has sent formal requests directly and through the Apostolic Nuncio in India based in Delhi who represents the Pope.

“A copy of our recent letter to the Apostolic Nuncio appealing for the intervention of the Pope to appoint Dalit bishops to give equitable representation to Dalit Catholics, which is traditionally denied, was sent to Pope also,” John said.

DCLM has been raising the various issues of Dalit Christians during the past three decades through letters, memorandums, some time public protests and dialogues with the Indian Catholic hierarchy and the Apostolic Nuncio in India, but with very little change and progress.

“We do not know how far our voice and representations reach the Pope,” John said.

Dalits constitute the majority of about 65% in the Catholic Community in India, but they remain severely marginalized and excluded. So, they demand equitable representation in everything viz. in education, employment in the Church institutions, in administrative positions of dioceses and institutions, sharing the resources, in the vocation to priesthood and clergy.

“Most importantly, our request is for equitable representation in the hierarchy, the appointment of bishops and superiors of Congregations. Traditionally these are dominated by the Caste bishops. Even now there are only around 10 Dalit Bishops among around 180 Catholic Bishops in India, which is a very marginal representation of the Dalit Catholics who constitute about 65 percent as declared by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) policy itself. It is a blatant caste domination and discrimination of Dalits in the Church,” John said.

DCLM’s appeal to Pope is to put an end to this decades-long disparity and inequality suffered by Dalits, since the ultimate decision on appointing Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals rests with the Vatican and Pope. If it is left to the recommendation of the Indian hierarchy and superiors alone, this will not happen, given their caste culture.

The CBCI even declared in December 2016 a Policy of Empowerment of Dalits in the Catholic Church, accepting the historical casteism, untouchability and discrimination of Dalits in the Catholic Church.

“It is more than three years now, but nothing has been done for its implementation so far. It is hypocrisy of having a policy just for a show. This is what we say the caste culture of the Catholic Church in India. We have raised this and want the Holy Father Pope Francis to know this,” he said.

Speaking on why Dalit issue is important for the bishops of India, John said, it affects the Dalits within the Church which they administer. In fact, bishops are responsible for the discrimination. They have both religious and secular authority to control and manage the Church, its institutions, properties and resources.

“So Bishops have to take the responsibility and be accountable to Dalits within the Church who are affected, and to eradicate discrimination. They need to uphold and be witness to the Christian values of human dignity, justice, equality and rights as well as the spirit of social justice and special safeguards to Dalits enshrined in the Constitution of India,” John said.

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