Jhabua (AsiaNews) The growing anti-Christian campaign in states controlled by Hindu fundamentalist administrations has fallen upon another Catholic priest. For the bishop of his diocese who has come to the clergyman's defence, this is another example of how the Madhya Pradesh's Freedom of Religion Act can be used as a "legal instrument" for every kind of abuse.
The main character in the story is Fr Thomas P.T., a parish priest at St Michael's Church in the diocese of Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh). He was arrested on July 21 on false charges of favouring the conversion of local Tribals. The facts are quite different.
The Father's troubles go back to July 8, when Rusmal Charpota, an activist with the Hindu paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and six other people pressed charges against the priest in the village of Jhaapadra for violating the state's Freedom of Religion Act, which bans forced conversions.
On June 25, Mr Charpota had already publicly accused Father Thomas with raising fees at the mission school he runs in order to discriminate against Hindus.
On that occasion, the RSS activist warned the Catholic priest that his organisation would decide what steps to take against him at its next meeting and would inform the authorities.
Father Thomas was eventually charged with demanding very high tuition fees whilst offering parents who couldn't pay them with the option of converting to Christianity in order to have the fees waved. The parents are said to have refused and so their children were not allowed to attend school.
In an interview with AsiaNews, Mgr Chaako Thottumarickal, Bishop of Jhabua, the diocese in which Father Thomas's parish is located, rejects the charges as false, a plot by Hindu extremists.
"These accusations are completely false. Sister Pratima and the teachers are in charge of admissions. The priest is the overall administrator but he is not involved in the day-to-day affairs of the school," Bishop Thottumarickal said.
According to the prelate, "Father Thomas's arrest is part of a conspiracy by the Sangh Parivar (an umbrella group, a 'family' of organisations and parties to which the RSS belongs). In the RSS's agenda, there is a campaign to foment anti-Christian hatred among Hindus and cause social unrest as a means to increase its popular appeal and slander the Church and its missionaries".
What is more, for Bishop Thottumarickal "the attitude of Hindu extremists towards Christians is inconsistent. First, they attack us and then they want to send their children to our schools because of the high quality of education."
The problem, he laments, is that often these families "demand their children pass the admission exams and be exempted from the fees".
The situation is made worse by the tacit support of the state government for these anti-Christian acts.
"The Freedom of Religion Act is a legal instrument offered by the authorities to extremists to persecute missionaries whom they accuse of 'forced conversions'," he said.
"Being persecuted is the price the Church must pay to pursue its mission, but at the same time our voice must be heeded. We need justice and those responsible for these odious crimes should be punished to prevent future violence."
Still, there is a silver lining in all of this, namely "solidarity among Christians in such a critical time."
None the less, "everyone is angered by the false charges brought against Father Thomas and are determined to obtain justice," Bishop Thottumarickal stressed.
After the priest's arrest, Jhabua Catholics in fact submitted a memorandum to the local and district administrations demanding that" the charges against Father Thomas be dropped and that his accusers be charged with unjustly attacking Christians and their institutions, which provide a valued service to the population in the social, educational and health fields".
The state of Madhya Pradesh is administered by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu fundamentalist party.
Panel in Jhabua district find no forced conversions. Tribals' interest in Christianity stems from love and care missionaries provide.