Naming caste-based discrimination as "sin, apostasy and rebellion against God", churches in India have committed themselves to serve as "zero tolerance zones" for casteism.
They also called for Lent 2011 to be "a time of purging caste" from Christian communities.
Representatives of 31 churches grouped in the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) made those commitments at an ecumenical conference held in New Delhi on 22-24 October 2010.
The event was convened by the National Council of Churches in India and the World Council of Churches (WCC).
"The moment of truth has come", said the NCCI president, Bishop Dr Taranath Sagar, speaking at the opening of the conference. He called on churches to get involved, in all sincerity and faithfulness, with the liberation of Dalits as part of the mission of God.
Despite the fact that the caste system was abolished under India’s constitution in 1950, "untouchability" is still practiced, particularly in rural areas. Caste-based discrimination affects at least 160 million people in India. One of the jobs assigned to the caste of Dalits in India is the manual removal of human faeces from dry latrines. About 80 per cent of manual scavengers are women.
In an affirmation of faith issued at the 22-24 October gathering, Indian churches representatives defined caste discrimination as "a crime against human beings" and "a grievance against the Holy Spirit".
According to the confession-like statement, "Dalit children are shunned, stunted and have their childhood shattered. Dalit women are beaten, raped, and murdered. Dalit men are dispossessed, locked up, and lynched".
It continued: "We are ashamed that we as Christians have remained silent while our brothers and sisters have been violated and killed."
However, the church representatives continued: "Dalits resilience and resistance" is an invitation to the church "to join in solidarity to denounce and resist the 'spiritual forces of evil'."
"This conference is remarkable as it has for the first time enabled the Indian churches to name caste as an evil system and caste discrimination as a sin and a crime", said the Rev Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, WCC programme executive for Justice and Inclusive Communities.
"Equally important", he added, "it has moved from building on Dalit suffering to Dalit resistance and determination to dismantle an oppressive social order."
Participants at the gathering expressed their expectation that the Christian liturgical season of Lent 2011 may become an "occasion for developing resources, both theological and liturgical, for use in Sunday Schools, youth groups, women's and men's fellowships and pastors' and bishops' retreats with the specific mandate to root out casteism in our mindset and caste discrimination in our way of life."
Speaking at the conference, Bishop Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, moderator of the WCC's Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, called for the "Dalitization of the Indian churches".
"Churches have to be inclusive, and any discrimination in any form will not make it the body of Christ", Coorilos said.
* "No one can serve Christ and caste!" An affirmation of faith from the National Ecumenical Conference on Justice for Dalits, New Delhi, 22-24 October 2010 - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/unity-mis...
* WCC Central Committee Statement on caste-based discrimination - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/central-committee/geneva...
* National Council of Churches in India - http://www.nccindia.in/
* WCC work in solidarity with Dalits - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/programmes/unity-mission-evangelism-and-spir...