Indian Dalit Christians demand separate Catholic rite

Indian Dalit Christians demand separate Catholic rite

Tamil Nadu organizations believe the move would ease caste-based discrimination

Bijay Kumar Minj  Bijay Kumar Minj Published: October 18, 2021 05:26 AM GMT
Indian Dalit Christians demand separate Catholic rite
Dalit Christians display the document titled ‘Towards an Indo–Dalit Individual Church and Rite’ at a seminar held at Acharapakkam in Chingleput Diocese of Tamil Nadu on Oct. 15. (Photo supplied)

Dalit Christian organizations in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have demanded a separate rite for Dalit Catholics as a solution to caste-based discrimination in the Indian Church.

Dalit Christians have long wanted an end to caste-based discrimination in the Church and have in the past urged Pope Francis to create a Catholic rite like the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches.

The latest demand was raised at a seminar organized by the Dalit Christian Liberation Forum, which represents Dalit Christian priests and nuns in the state, at Acharapakkam in Chingleput Diocese of Tamil Nadu on Oct. 15

It was attended by more than 250 participants including Dalit rights activists, journalists, teachers and youths from 27 organizations to discuss and reflect on the document titled “Towards an Indo–Dalit Individual Church and Rite” authored by a team of experts led by noted theologian Father Felix Wilfred.

Copies of the document were sent to Propaganda Fide, Rome, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) and bishops across India.

“The seminar was the first to be held after readying the detailed document or article on the formation of the Indian-Dalit Individual Church or rite.  It was in continuation of the initial seminar held in August,” Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, former secretary to the CBCI office for Dalits and backward classes, told UCA News.

Father Raj, one of the organizers of the seminar, further revealed that “it is the first introductory state-level meeting where Dalit Catholics and other denominational churches came together to reflect over a separate Dalit rite under the Roman Catholic Church.”

The priest said Catholics of Dalit origin are different from the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches. Their sociopolitical realities, culture, traditions, practices and way of life are different from those of Catholics belonging to dominant communities.

The CBCI’s policy for Dalit empowerment affirms that “the term ‘Dalit’ does not indicate a caste identity … It is not only a matter of social and cultural category but a theological category as well.”

“We have faced discrimination and marginalization within the Church as well as in civil society for the past several decades. We want Dalit Christians to be treated as equals,” Father Raj said.

The seminar in Tamil Nadu discussed and reflected on a church where Dalit Christians celebrate their music, culture and traditions as the Syro–Malabar and Malankara churches do. Participants felt the demand for a Dalit rite would be in communion with Pope Francis’ call for a synodal church inviting all for communion, participation and mission.

Addressing the participants, Father Cosmon Arockiaraj, former secretary to the CBCI office for Dalits and backward classes, said “the Dalit rite in the Catholic Church would nurture the Indian Church. It would pave the way for unity in diversity and be an example for multiplicity.”

“The Dalit rite is a proposal. It is God’s will and a need of the hour to form the fourth rite under the Roman Catholic Church. We, the Dalits, are the body of the Christ crucified on the cross,” he said.

The Dalits have the right to autonomy, equality and evangelization, Father Arockiaraj said.

Sister Alphonsa, coordinator of the Thurumber Liberation Movement in Tamil Nadu, said: “The Dalit rite is the rite of the people. This would help Dalit Christians to experience God’s love without any discrimination.”

Dalits, or former untouchables, are considered the lowest within the ancient Hindu caste hierarchy. Many have converted to Christianity and Islam over the past few centuries but these religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice and discrimination.

Dalits among Catholics are currently spread over the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches and have repeatedly complained of having been treated as outcastes in education, employment, vocation to the priesthood and in the appointment of bishops.

Some Catholics, however, are apprehensive that a separate rite would create “an invisible wall, a deep chasm” between Dalit Catholics and others in the Church.

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