India's Bishops Defend "Untouchables"

New Peace Mission Begins Door-to-Door Work

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NEW DELHI, India, DEC. 4, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The caste system was abolished years ago, but members of the "untouchable" group are still marginalized and persecuted, especially because many have embraced Christianity or Islam, reports the Indian bishops' conference.



In response to the needs of the Dalit or "untouchable" group in the former Hindu caste system, the episcopal conference and the National Council of Churches in India declared Dec. 7 the "Day of Dalit Liberation." The theme, "Seek Justice, Liberate the Oppressed," reflects the desire to reclaim the rights of this tribal group.

The day was convoked in particular because of recent months' brutal violence in Orissa and other states of India, in which a majority of the victims were Christian Dalits. The conference reported that at least 57 of the dead, and tens of thousands of refugees, belong to this social group.

In a public statement issued by the conference, they asserted, "Christian Dalits are attacked because they are Dalits, which implies oppression in the name of castes, and also because they are Christians, which is discrimination in the name of religion. Violence against Christian Dalits is flagrant proof of violation against their human rights."

Sunday was chosen to be the day of prayer in all the churches of India due to its proximity to the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10), explained the bishops.

They added that the purpose of the day is, on one hand, to sensitize the Christian community to the marginalization of Dalits and, on the other, to call for more determined action by the government to guarantee respect for human rights.

Ray of hope

Meanwhile, acts of violence against Christians have not been curbed. AsiaNews reported Wednesday that two women were killed in the district of Kandhamal, after returning to their village to harvest rice in their fields. On the night of Nov. 25, homes of two Christian families and one Hindu accused of sheltering Christians were set on fire.

Nonetheless, Archbishop Rafael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who just returned to his diocesan headquarters in Bhubaneswar, the Orissa state capital, told Aid to the Church in Need that there is a ray of hope. A peace mission led by Indian dignitaries will attempt to reconcile the Hindu people with the Christians so that thousands of displaced persons can return home.

The team of 150 plans to begin today by going house to house in Orissa and Delhi, attempting to dispel fears and promote peace. The archbishop said, "The peace mission is something that must be done. What is so promising about it is that the initiative has come not from our own community but from others, including other religious groups."

He continued, "The plans the mission coordinators have set in place build on the fact that 50%-60% of Hindus in Kandhamal and elsewhere are extremely sorry about what has happened and want to cooperate in any steps to bring back normalcy."

According to Aid to the Church in Need, the majority of Christians have been unable to return home, though the government is putting pressure on them to leave the relief camps. Archbishop Cheenath said, "We desperately want to get people back to their homes, but for that to take place, they need to be protected. We are asking the police to continue to stay in the region."