A deep-rooted caste divide among Christians in India's southern Tamil Nadu state has come to the fore after two Roman Catholics were killed at Eraiyur in the Pondicherry archdiocese due to police firing during a clash between upper-caste and Dalit church members - writes Anto Akkara.
Marie John, a coordinator of the National Council of Dalit Christians, told Ecumenical News International that police on 9 March opened fire on the upper-caste Catholics from the Vanniar community when the group stoned police who had rushed to Eraiyur after Dalit protesters were beaten up and their houses damaged by members of upper castes.
John said the upper castes felt insulted when the Dalit Catholics began a hunger strike at Eraiyur on 7 March demanding recognition of a church they had built as an independent parish following tensions with the majority upper castes in the parish.
The trouble in the parish dates back to 1999 after a disagreement in the church between upper-caste parishioners and Dalits during a funeral procession for the mother of a Dalit priest at the church.
Upper castes insisted that low-caste Dalits (who were once treated as untouchables before caste discrimination was made unconstitutional) could bring their dead to the church only through the side door of the building.
"The development in Eraiyur shows that upper castes are not yet prepared to respect the rights of the Dalits and treat them as equals," John stated.
According to Hindu tradition, Dalits are subservient and carry out menial jobs for the upper castes and live segregated from them.
Echoing Hindu caste practices, some Christian parishes in Tamil Nadu have separate cemeteries for Dalits and upper castes, while Dalits have to remain spectators at church activities. Dalits can be prevented from having funeral and marriage processions along main streets, an upper-caste preserve.
"This is really sad. A situation like this should have never happened in the church," the Rev. Cosmon Arokiaraj, executive secretary of the Dalit Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, told ENI.
"This is a counter witness to our unity and common faith," said Archbishop Antony Anandarayar of Pondicherry and Cuddalore. "We are initiating steps to bring both parties to dialogue. Hopefully, we should be able to have common witness and unity soon," Anandarayar noted. "What happened in Eraiyur shows how deep is the caste prejudice here."
In India more than 65 per cent of all Christians are believed to be Dalits. Christians account for only 2.3 per cent of Indian's 1.1 billion people.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]