New Internationalist

Stop caste discrimination in the Church’

12-05-2017-cardinal-590.jpg [Related Image]
Cardinal Peter Turkson © Catholic News Agency

From a conference on dalit discrimination in London comes a message to Pope Francis, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

And so it happened. Dalits, clergy and lay people have sent a message to Pope Francis via Cardinal Peter Turkson who attended the London dalit conference on 9 and 10 May 2017. Their plea? To ask the Pope to intervene to ensure that caste discrimination within the Catholic Church ends during this Pope’s reign.

Growing up a Catholic in Calcutta, now Kolkata, I had no idea that caste could be a part of Christianity. Didn’t Christ preach justice and love for all? ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is a pretty tall order, if you think deeply and seriously about what this message really means. It’s pretty difficult to love anyone as you love yourself.

So how could the Church condone, leave alone allow, caste discrimination, or indeed the very notion of caste with Christ’s church for 2000 years? He was diametrically opposed to injustice and discrimination. He opted for the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable.

The anger and bitterness in the hearts and minds of dalit priests and bishops was evident. They told stories of their powerlessness in the corridors of Catholic power. To me, it was both shocking and saddening. Immensely moving.

The history of how the Churches, both Catholic and Anglican, came into existence in India, is complicated and convoluted. The earliest church in India was started by St Thomas shortly after Christ died. He was welcomed into the court of the Maharaja of Travancore, who enjoyed religious discourse and new ideas. The earliest converts were Brahmins and Nairs attracted by Christ’s message of justice and love.

Later converts came a few hundred years after and these were from dalit and other castes. It was not a united church. They held on to notions of purity and superiority. The early Syrian Christians were educated and wealthy. The new converts were their servants and minions. The divide continued and grew. They worshipped in separate churches, buried their dead in different cemeteries and received communion at different rails. The history of conversions cannot be neatly fitted into a blog. Books have been written on the subject.

It is time to move on. Time to take action. Time for the Church to put its money where its mouth is.

Jesuits in Chennai have ensured 30 per cent reservation for dalits in Loyola College, one of Chennai’s most prestigious colleges. Dalit kids often come from homes where there isn’t a single book in the house. Homes where there is barely enough food to eat. In order to succeed, to cope with the more affluent students in their classes, they need special mentoring and nurturing. They need good teachers to give them extra classes to help them catch up. They are in a world where they are despised because they compete with kids who come from privilege, from the best schools, with the most expensive private tutors. If our educational systems do not help our dalit kids to catch up, they will be doomed to disappointment, mediocrity and failure.

Education is the key, but additional measures are needed to achieve excellence. We can do it if we have the determination and will to do it.

Christian churches have created educational institutes of excellence which inspired and produced some of the best minds in the country. We can do this mammoth job.

The Christian Network Against Caste Discrimination must ensure that their support goes out specially to the people who are at the bottom of the dalit ladder.

Cardinal Turkson had that particularly beautiful face that I have seen in tribal chiefs and African elders and statesmen. It radiated calm, thoughtfulness and wisdom. If he and the dalit network can get this message to the Pope and Pope Francis speaks out, the Christian clergy will obey. Slowly, reluctantly, perhaps. But they will.

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  1. #1 Raphae Maliakal 12 May 17

    I was not aware of caste discrimination in the Catholic Church in India. I am interested in knowing if the Church officially accepts subtle discrimination.

    Raphael Maliakal

  2. #2 mari marcel 12 May 17

    There are still separate Churches, separate burial grounds and in some churches different communion rails for dominant caste Christians(Protestant and Catholic) and separate ones for dalits.

    Can send you info if you send me yr email id

    Please check out Vodi website

    Thanks for taking the trouble to write in



  3. #3 regi george 12 May 17

    great article - love reading your pieces marie

  4. #4 Josantony Joseph 12 May 17

    While I fully support what Mari has proposed, I am not sure about the confidence that she seems to have that the Christian clergy in India will necessarily follow Pope Francis even if he exhorts the clergy to take action. A case in point is the Pope's exhortation both in words and by example to include women and other such groups in the 'washing of the feet' on Maundy Thursday. In response, Cardinal Allenchery of the Syro Malabar church sent out a direction indicating that Syro malabar churches did NOT have to follow this exhortation because the changes in the Holy Thursday rituals are applicable only to Latin parishes. While technically this is true as the Vatican itself has clarified, the fact that Allenchery felt the need to re-state it indicates clearly that the Syro Malabar church is not in favour of changing its practices and that in fact he was assuring Syro Malabar priests that they could continue their patriarchal ways of functioning. Where caste is concerned, the Syro Malabar priests, in their conversations and home visits, often actually 'preach' the superiority of the 'caste' of the Syro Malabar lineage as compared to the lineage of Latin rite Catholics. So it is not likely that they will change , unless the Pope releases a dictat - which is not the ’style’ of the present Pope.

  5. #5 Sandra Misquith 13 May 17

    Well written as usual Mari. Its a sad story for our country and for the church when we can not or will not rise above petty mindedness and discrimination. Though reservations are there, are these people actually benefiting, or frauds who fake certificates getting the cream of creams. At least the church can work towards ending this and I am glad its now being spoken about at international forums.
    All the best

  6. #6 Moses Parmar 13 May 17

    Dear Mari,
    Excellent article. God bless you for your good heart and services for the suffering people. If you ever come to Lucknow, UP, I would love to see you and interact more on this.

    In Christ,


  7. #7 stan 13 May 17

    To see caste purely as a socio-economic structure is in some ways trivializing the pain of the victims of caste oppression. It goes much deeper into issues of identity. Identities that are forced upon them - and these identities get carried into whatever one does. Ask a dalit civil servant, ask a dalit judge, ask a dalit teacher and as this article points out ask a dalit priest, nun or bishop. Discrimination dogs every step. It is common knowledge that one of the drivers of dalits converting to Christianity is the promise of a new life without discrimination. A flight to sanctuary. But when the sanctuary itself mirrors the oppressive discrimination what hope for these victims...
    Over to you Pope Francis. IF you called Capitalism the dung of the devil i wonder what you would call this discrimination within your own hallowed walls. My plea - do not let history repeat itself by sweeping the sins of the church under the carpet

  8. #8 Maggie 13 May 17

    Extraordinary to discover this. I thought that one of the reasons many Hindus converted to Christianity in the first place, when the missionaries really got going under British rule, was that there was no caste in Christian communities. What an irony that influence went in the wrong direction ...

  9. #9 ludwig pesch 13 May 17

    So timely and urgent - wishing everyone luck and strength to move forward in the face of resistance from often unexpected quarters.
    Having been close to a Christian Dalit family in Chennai for 4 decades I have learned to look at their lot – prejudice, 24/7 insecurity, fear or worse – from different angles. Not a pretty sight, all those man made problems. Problems that can – must – be solved in consultation with those concerned: the very victims of a supposedly ’Golden Age’, past and future. An age of plenty, yet never experienced by anyone but a privileged few. Ironically, it is them who keep mourning its loss, get all the attention for free, and feel entitled to get it back at any price. Human and otherwise.

  10. #10 chandrika sen sharma 14 May 17

    So strange that there is class discrimination in the Church! Its the last institution that I thought would harbor such non-christian ideology! Thanks for bringing attention to this little known phenomena.

    Chandrika Sen Sharma

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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