Open Letter of Indian Dalit Christians to Pope Benedict XVI
R L Francis
27 December 2011
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you - St Matthew 7.7
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Secretariat of State
00120 Vatican City State - Europe
Wish You a Merry Christmas and New Year
The debate related to the status of Christians in India is going on and you are already aware of it. There are two points to this wide ranging debate. First, social, economic and political status of converted Christians; and second, growing tensions in different parts of the country due to conversion-related activities. The second has more to do with the way the Catholic Church opts to function in the country.
According to official estimates of the government, there are 30 million Christians in the country and 70 percent of this population has directly come from socially and economically downtrodden community popularly known as “Dalits”. However, as per unofficial figures, the population of minority Christians is not less than 60-70 million. Irony is that; these people have been constantly suppressed and exploited even under the structure of the Catholic Church being led by you (Pope). They are ridiculed for their sacrifices made hundreds of years ago for the church. They don’t command equal status in the existing structure of church and this has made the sacrifices futile.
Christianity stresses on the fact that God has created people in his own image and this has become the founding stone of equality of human values in Christian society. But, they are continuously meted out differential treatment in the name of caste and birth. In order to catch your attention towards these core issues, I am writing this letter to you. I am going to discuss first core issue.
Ideology of Church
Theoretically, there is no place for non-equality and racism in Christianity and when it is attached with identity of the Catholic Church; the concept of caste automatically vanishes like camphor as the word ‘Catholic-means-Universal’. There is only one head of this universal community of people and that is none other than representative of Vicar of Christ which is responsible for recruitment of Bishops in order to guide their disciples.
In that way, Holy Father/Pope, ‘you’ are responsible for maintaining the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ on the earth. Now you should explain to me where is the place of dirty ideology like casteism and racism in this ‘Kingdom of Heaven’?
Deprived class in Indian church
Downtrodden class in India has always been victim of unequal treatment, casteism and social exploitation. In order to seek solace and relief from their pathetic condition, they are still coming under the aegis of church for the last 3 or 4 centuries. But, here, too, they have been exploited in the name of caste and race. The hope with which they had come to Christianity seems to have been forfeited. On the contrary, they are now entangled in even deeper quagmire of inequality.
Church moving opposite to ideology of Christianity
Catholic Church has completely failed in its duty to provide equality and justice to that majority of converted people under the structure controlled by you (Pope). The resources have been captured by upper-class Christians. After independence of India, the Catholic Church has immensely progressed which is reflected in the heavy increase in the number of schools, colleges, social institutions, new diocese, Fathers, Bishops, nuns and their followers. However, despite this entire progress, one thing that has not changed - the status of converted Christians.
Converted Christians are the backbone of the Catholic Church in India, but their participation in the structure of Catholic Church is zero. Bishop, Father and Cardinal from this class are rare to find and those who somehow managed after hard-fought struggle are standing marginalized in society. They are being treated differently by their upper-class brothers (Bishops and Fathers).
Thousands of organizations related to education, health and non-governmental organizations are being run by church and right to run these institutions has been conferred by Indian constitution. The structure of church being run under Vatican (you) has failed to do justice to converted Christians. Understanding the gravity of the situation Pope John Paul-II had severely criticized the attitude of unequal treatment and discriminatory approach in the church. In 2003, he had said that Bishops were appointed to look after lambs and it is their duty to abolish any kind of discrimination prevalent in the Catholic Church.
Betrayal of faith
There is widespread anger among converted Christians against the policies adopted by the church. They have started demanding their rights within the existing structure of church. The response of church has been abysmal in this regard. The church leadership has termed this anger unjustified. Instead of addressing the genuine concerns of converted Christians, they have shied away from their responsibilities and are trying to shift it on the Government of India. This is being done in order to fulfill their own ulterior motive. By doing so church is pushing these people in the same quagmire of caste system.
When Indian constitution was being framed, constitution makers advocated reservations for the dalit class who were victims of caste oppression in the prevalent Hindu system. Majority of Hindu people sacrificed their right to equality in favour of their dalit brothers as a compensation of injustice meted out to them.
Your Holiness, do your representatives have the moral right to betray the faith of those who had blindly believed in the church and its promises? They have given their whole life to the church. The story is similar to the poor widow about whom Jesus had said to their disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12: 41-44) We Dalit Catholics had also left the facilities (reservation) given by the Indian government.
Church should compensate
Church is now blaming others for its failures. When the Indian constitution was being framed, these converted Christians remained in the fold of the church and did not switch their loyalties. Within the framework of the constitution, minorities were given special rights and privileges that were unthinkable even in USA and Europe. Taking benefit of these rights, the church has enlarged its empire but seems to have forgotten converted Christians. Church leadership is stifling the just demands of their own people who are the backbone of the Catholic Church in the country.
Now, church leadership has no moral right to bring the converted people in the realm of the same caste system that has oppressed them for centuries. Had they not gone in the fold of the church and continued with the Hindu system they, too, would have enjoyed benefits bestowed upon them by the Constitution of India and progressed like their other Dalit Hindu brothers in the same fashion.
After the Government of India, the church is the only organized entity that can make available jobs, but the participation of converted Christians is very low and maximum they can get is post of driver, cook, clerk, peon and gatekeeper. These jobs, too, can be availed on the mercy of Bishops and their condition is no better than slave laborers. I demand from the church that they should compensate for the injustice and exploitation meted out to millions of converted Christians. Vatican had done this in the past and it can also be done here.
Church should change its policy
Church has always preferred safe trade. It has established thousands of schools, colleges and other institutions. This has benefited a lot to the church leadership, but the majority of converted Christians have been largely deprived. Even in the field of education where church has practically monopoly, it has failed to benefit converted Christians. We will not stop just after getting few benefits, but Dalit Christians want their due share in the existing structure.
Hindu society is changing very fast. Doors of temples are being opened for Dalit Hindus and many programmes are being run to abolish ignominious caste system, whereas Christianity has not been able to do minor changes in its structure. Hindu dalits are constantly moving on, but this is not the case with converted Christian society. Church administration being led by you is pushing them back. Perhaps their thinking is to assimilate converted Christians among 300 million Hindus. They believe that this will make the task of church leadership easier. Why it is that church leadership always seeks solution in putting converted Christians in the list of Hindu dalits?
It is the duty of church leadership that process of development should be smooth. It is good to have institutions/policy made for the welfare of people. However, it is even more important who are implementing them. Converted Christians should get share proportionate to their population. Unless and until this happens, their position in the society will remain the same and their problems will persist.
Your Holiness, in the first point I have tried to elaborate the first point related to the problems faced by converted Christians. In India, the relationship between Catholic Church and its followers is not based on democratic set-up. Inside the church, upper-caste Christians have more opportunity to progress than converted Christians. Considering the status of these people, some fundamental structural changes are needed. At present, Bishops are the “key power” and they are appointed by the Vatican and that is why they feel themselves more responsible towards Vatican and less towards Kalisia. Most of the Catholics are of the view that Bishop should be elected by Kalisia and not by the Vatican so that they could be made more responsible towards their people.
Evangelization and escalating tension
Recently, for the sake of safety and security of Christian society, you have appealed to Hindu society that they should stand-up against condemnable hate propaganda against Christians and should pave the way for religious freedom. Your concerns are genuine as tension between Christians and people from other faiths has escalated over the years and at some places it has even taken violent turn. Be it ignominious incident of burning of Graham Staines with his two children in 1999 or Kandhamal riots or violence at some other place. Indian society has always opposed violence on the name of caste or religion. Indian government has acted swiftly whenever such incidents have taken place. Perpetrators of crime have been punished. Government has also constituted various commissions in this regard and their reports have been startling.
India has always been a glorious symbol of tolerance and has shown respect for all religions and faiths with the feeling of amicable co-existence. There is no place for non-tolerant faith among majority of Hindu community. Every citizen respects fundamental right of religious freedom of other people.
Many commissions constituted by government in the wake of violent instances against Christians have also indicated towards imperialistic nature of church. There is an urgent need for introspection on the method of propagation of Christian faith as they have become instruments of growing tension with people of other faiths. We can stop this by changing the current practices by the church and help create amicable atmosphere.
Freedom of church in India
Indian church and Christians have rights that are not even available to European church. In matters related to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other religions there is some government intervention. For example, properties of religious institutions of Muslims are looked after by Waqf board. Similarly, religious properties in Sikhs are also managed according to Indian law. Government has direct control over the income of big temples and this money is spent on upliftment of deprived class.
But, government has no intervention in matters pertaining to Christians. Bishops are appointed by you and Vatican and Fathers/Bishops has ownership over huge assets and resources of church. Even in Europe many countries have control over the properties of church. India is one country where church enjoys immense religious freedom.
Introspection of evangelization policy is necessary
Recently, Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue has raised few questions about status of religious freedom in India. The indication was towards anti-conversion law made by few states in India. Church is facing difficulty after enactment of this law. They should understand that Indian constitution allows anybody to follow faith of his/her choice and even allows propagation of religion. But nobody can justify conversion of scheduled caste and tribes under the garb of social service.
There is a thin line between propagation of one’s faith and conversion. If state gives absolute freedom to those who have sole motive of conversion, then it is the duty of the state to intervene in the matter. This becomes all the more important considering wherever conversion has taken place in large number social tension has increased.
This year Vatican had convened a meeting of various heads of faiths in Assisi of Italy on October 27. In this meeting, Indian representation had tried to attract the attention of Vatican towards conversion. As a matter of fact, if Vatican really wants amicable solution to various problems faced by Christianity then it is the church that will have to play larger role in the process.
Development of converted Christians should be goal of church
Your Holiness, theoretically Christianity advocates equality but in practice reality is starkly different. Discriminatory caste policies of the Catholic Church fail the basic motive of Christianity. In reality, condition of converted Christians worsens after conversion. Church should bring a White Paper on the matter of how much church has progressed after independence and how much progress converted Christians have made during the same period.
Church receives huge donations in the name of social service and development of disciples of the faith, but hardly anything has changed on the ground. This is certainly a food for thought that where this money goes?
Poor Christian Liberation Movement (PCLM), an umbrella organization of Dalit Christians, is of the view that church officials don’t want to leave any benefit currently enjoyed by them at any cost. They are not at all concerned with the betterment of converted Christians. This is why there is no hint of betterment of the status of this community even in the distant future. The current system harbours inequality. That is why it will be wrong to expect that things will change in the near future.
Converted Christians are looking towards you with a lot of hope and we request you to take concrete steps for change in the fundamental structure of church.
Yours in Christ
R L Francis