Christians from the marginalized community in Tamil Nadu say the move highlights discrimination in the Church
Dalit Christians in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu held a protest march on Feb. 13 to oppose the appointment of an apostolic administrator from another state.
The Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore was vacant after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishop Antony Anandarayar from pastoral governance on Jan. 27 after he reached the canonical retirement age of 75.
Bishop Peter Abir Antonysamy of Sultanpet was appointed apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, which Dalit Christians say is discriminatory as there are several qualified bishops in the state.
“Archbishop Anandarayar and Archbishop Antony Pappusamy of Madurai, who is president of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC), had promised us last October that the next archbishop would be of Dalit origin,” M. Mary John, president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM), told UCA News.
“We suspect our demand for appointing an archbishop of Dalit origin will not be met after the appointment of an apostolic administrator from another state. We appeal to the nuncio and the Holy See for their urgent intervention to secure justice and equal rights for us. The DCLM has been vigorously pursuing these demands with the Catholic hierarchy in India as well as with the Vatican for years.
“We are submitting a memorandum on behalf of Dalit Christians at the end of their public demonstration, which they are forced to take up to get justice in the Catholic Church.”
The Catholic hierarchy in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry as well as at national level are responsible for this unfortunate situation, John said.
Apostolic administrator Bishop Antonysamy was evasive on the issue of appointing a Dalit archbishop to the archdiocese and seemed unwilling to explain to the apostolic nuncio in India and the Vatican the reality of caste discrimination, he added.
“What we are demanding is very well justified and accepted by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s policy itself for Dalit empowerment in the Catholic Church in 2016 and the Dalit policy of the TNBC several years before,” John said.
But these have not been implemented so far. When it comes to really doing justice and giving equal rights to Dalit Christians, the Catholic hierarchy in India takes only a hostile stand, he added.
“When we raise our voice against it, they misinterpret, misinform and misguide the apostolic nuncio and the Holy See about our claims and legitimate struggle. They sanctimoniously suppress our voice as victims. It is a silent atrocity which is not visible to outsiders,” John said.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India policy of Dalit empowerment affirms that the term “Dalit” does not indicate a caste identity. It is not only a social and cultural category but a theological category as well.
The memorandum, which is addressed to Propaganda Fide and several Catholic organizations in India, said a Dalit archbishop should be appointed to the existing vacancy in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore as they comprise the majority of Catholics in the archdiocese.
Dalits, or untouchables, are the lowest caste within Hindu society. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though in reality the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.
The word “Dalit” means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-tier Hindu caste system. Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this marginalized community. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin.