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India’s Dalit Catholics welcome papal nuncio’s clarification on appointment of bishops

Several Dalit Catholic groups in India welcomed the clarification issued by the Apostolic Nuncio this week on the appointment of bishops in the country.

“I appreciate the immediate response of the Apostolic Nuncio to India,” said Mathew Gnanapragasam, convener of the Tamil Nadu Dalit Christian Coalition, in a report posted on Matters India.

On February 7, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, papal nuncio to India, clarified that “there is no discrimination in the selection of episcopal candidates and in the appointment of new bishops.”

The alleged “discrimination” in the appointment of bishops was raised by a group of Dalit Christians following an audience with the Vatican ambassador on February 2.

“Archbishop Girelli’s response is highly appreciated,” Gnanapragasam told Matters India, adding that previous nuncios did not responded to several letters from the Dalit Christian community.

Shalin Maria Lawrence, a Dalit Christian woman activist and writer based in Chennai, said the nunciature’s statement was “open and honest.”

Maria Lawrence, however, said there were contradictions in the nunciature’s statement. She said the data about Dalit representation in the Indian Catholic Church shows a different picture.

“The facts and figures clearly show that caste discrimination has been practiced while appointing bishops in India,” she told Matters India.

Maria Lawrence also said that the call for the appointment of Dalit bishops is not an issue of power but a matter of “equal representation” and to correct a “human rights violation.”

In its February 7 statement, the Nunciature noted that the episcopal ministry in the Church “is to be intended as a service to the people and not as a position of power.”

Maria Lawrence said the “discrimination” of Dalits in the appointment of bishops violates the laws of the Church. She said the appointment of bishops from dominant castes affects the Church’s service to its faithful.

“The dominant caste bishops overlook the welfare and needs of the Church, which has the majority Dalit population,” she said. “They do not practice or preach equality within the Church, which goes against the core of the Christian values.”

Gnanapragasam also noted that the Indian Catholic Church’s Dalit Policy of 2016 admits caste discrimination in the Church, but made no efforts to appoint bishops from the community.

Representatives of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) lead by M. Mary John meets with Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli (left), apostolic nuncio to India and Nepal on February 2, 2022. (Photo supplied)

In his statement, the Apostolic Nuncio said he is “willing to understand more the reality of the Dalit Catholic Community,” and “has listened attentively to the grievances presented by the [Dalit Christian Liberation Movement].”

He said the Nunciature, in doing its task in verifying candidates to the office of the bishop, “stringently follows clear principles of the Holy See in the process of determining the Church’s leadership.”

“In this process, the Apostolic Nunciature, aware of the contribution of the Dalit people in the Catholic Church in India, always gives consideration to Dalit candidates for episcopacy,” said the prelate.

“With reference to the Dalit policy issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the Apostolic Nunciature fully supports it and recommends its implementation as it states: ‘Caste with its consequent effects of discrimination and ‘caste mentality’ has no place in Christianity,’” read the archbishop’s statement.

He said that in the Catholic Church, “the mutual sense of belonging is prior to the emergence of individual groups.”

“Each particular group becomes part of the fabric of universal communion and there discovers its own beauty,” said the prelate, quoting Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti.

Dalit Christians are “low-caste” persons in India who have converted to Christianity from Hinduism and are still categorized as Dalits in Hindu and Christian societies.

An estimated 60 percent of Indian Christians are Dalits. They also constitute about 64 percent of the Catholic population.

Since the 1990s, Dalit groups have been protesting the alleged exclusion from the Church hierarchy of Dalits.

In 1993, the first Dalit bishop was appointed to the Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry region, and three more were appointed in the next 15 years.

The group, however, said that since 2007 the momentum seemed to have stopped.

Only 11 out of 160 bishops of India are Dalits, and Tamil Nadu and Puducherry have just one Dalit bishop. – with a report from Matters India

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