An archbishop in northern India has praised the government for not bowing to pressure to curb Christian outreach to a huge underclass community urgently in need of basic education and health care.
Archbishop William D’Souza of Patna stressed the vital work of Church groups providing urgent help for hundreds of thousands of Dalits – many of them non-Christians – who live in extreme poverty, often largely cut off from the rest of society.
His comments, made in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), come after a surge in anti-Christian sentiment across key parts of India.
These sentiments were spread by hard-line Hindu nationalist groups who controversially claim that the Church’s work with the poor is motivated by a hidden agenda of mass conversion.
The 2007-8 anti-Christian violence in Orissa state, eastern India, shocked the country into realizing the scale of religious hatred in the region and put the spotlight on anti-conversion laws enforced over the past decade in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh, as well as Orissa.
Archbishop D’Souza made clear, however, that the Bihar state coalition government has long accepted the Church’s work with the Dalits, also known as Scheduled Castes.
Describing his diocese as “predominantly a Church of the Dalits,” Archbishop D’Souza said, “There is no direct opposition from the government so far.”
He added, “The government appreciates what we are doing.”
The archbishop underlined that, while promotion of Christian values makes up a crucial part of the outreach work, its primary objective is to raise people out of abject poverty by making them aware of their rights and providing training aimed at giving job opportunities.
Pointing out that Dalits make up 45,000 of the 65,000 Catholics in the diocese, Archbishop D’Souza said, “The people we help are very poor and we don’t have the resources to give them all that they need.”
“All we are trying to do is to give them a ray of hope for the future – through health and education and teaching them Christian values.”
Dalits work as manual laborers, cleaning latrines and sewers and clearing away garbage.
Although in urban areas, discrimination against them has declined dramatically, reports from rural areas indicate that partly for religious reasons and also because of the nature of their work, Dalits are seen as unclean and are barred from access from Hindu temples, eating places, schools and water sources.
In Patna Archdiocese, the Church – both diocesan and religious communities – have responded by setting up a vast support network.
There are 3,000 self-help groups – with up to 15 members each – with programs on human rights, women empowerment, home economics and organizational skill development.
Dalits are taught skills such as cooking soup and basket making in initiatives intended to create jobs and provide income.
There are youth groups across the diocese where thousands of young people are given training and are taught human rights and Christian values.
Although the archbishop described the diocese as a “100 percent missionary Church,” he said that adult baptisms had fallen after having peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.
He underlined the gratitude felt by the people towards the Church.
He said, “Most of the people we work with are not Catholic. They tell us that we are their saviors.”
“They keep in touch with us, but because of the changing needs of the people we are not able to follow them continually.”
The archbishop thanked ACN for providing key help, especially with catechetical projects, Mass stipends and training for Sisters.
He said, “ACN has been a huge source of support, helping our work with the poorest of the poor.”