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A Dalit Priest Reveals How Caste Discrimination Works In Catholic Churches

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For the first time in history, in early December this year, the Indian Catholic Church officially acknowledged the fact that Dalit Christians face discrimination and untouchability, and that “their partnership in the level of leadership… at the highest level is almost nil”.

As per the report, 12 million out of 19 million members of the Catholic Church in India are Dalit Christians. But only 12 of the 240 bishops in the Catholic Church in the country are Dalit Christians.

Born into a Dalit family in Thailapuram, Tamil Nadu, Iruthayaraj Thusnevish, started India’s first Dalit Catholic Church in 2008 in the village, resigning from his position as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, because of the discrimination he faced.

Traditional Roman Catholic Religion is bogged by power structures, and has little or no place for those from the Dalit community, he says. His church, he believes, “offers a more personal, pastoral approach and progressive ideology than that of the larger, and more well-known forms of Catholicism.”

In a open, honest and free-wheeling conversation with Youth Ki Awaaz, Thusnevish spoke about struggles faced by him trying to become a priest on account of his Dalit identity, experiences of discrimination at the Roman Catholic Church, his motivation to start the Dalit Catholic Church and why he thinks the recent announcement by the Church will not change anything for the Dalit community on ground.

Iruthayaraj Thusnevish

Shikha Sharma (SS): Tell us a little about your experiences of training as a priest for the Roman Catholic Church.

Iruthayaraj Thusnevish (IT): I come from a small village of Thailapuram in Tamil Nadu. I had already made up my mind of wanting to become a priest, and tried to join a seminary so that I could study there. Initially, they tried to avoid me. Nobody was rude to me, but in a nice way, it was suggested that I wasn’t welcome. I figured out they wouldn’t take me into the seminary when I wasn’t allowed to study at the seminar for more than a year, but those belonging to higher castes got entry within months. I was upset that they didn’t take me, but then decided to go to Kolkata for my seminary training. There, I experienced another kind of discrimination, racial discrimination. ‘Why has a mallu come here to study?’ I finally finished by studies in Theology from Bangalore. After finishing studies, I was ordained by a bishop in Bangalore as a priest.

SS: Tell us about experiences of working as a priest at the Roman Catholic Church. Did you face discrimination after becoming a priest?

IT: I worked as a priest at the Roman Catholic Church for 8 years. During the time, no bishop would respect me or take me into their diocese. A few control power and access, and because I was a Dalit, I was denied any opportunity. I built a small place in my village and living in my home started serving local dioceses. Every church I went, I was asked to say mass and prayers, and then go. Talking to those belonging to the Dalit community was frowned upon. In villages, this practice is really entrenched. If you belong to the Dalit community, no one in the church talks to you. You come, pray and leave. Your burial grounds are different and so are your feasts. For the priests, you are untouchable. I couldn’t take it after a while and decided to start the Dalit Catholic Church where anyone, especially someone from the so-called lower caste, could come and pray, and not be discriminated against.

SS: Why do you think the discrimination is so rampant?

IT: Becoming a priest or a bishop has become a kind of occupation, instead of a service. Like I said before, it is controlled by these dominant groups, who just don’t want to give an opportunity to anyone else. The caste-system has only added to the problem. For example, there are places where a particular street will only have a particular caste staying. The residents of that street will have their own church and cemetery. The same will be true for the next street. Culturally, instead of breaking this system, the church has given it more power. In big cities, it may not be that apparent. But in small villages, this is the norm.

SS: The Catholics Bishop’s Conference Of India (CBCI), the highest decision-making body of the community has for the first time acknowledged the discrimination faced by Dalit Christians. It has also asked dioceses to suggest steps so that things can change. What do you make of this development?

IT: They may have acknowledged this, but they cannot change the caste system. So at least, untouchability cannot be undone by them. Culturally, this is too entrenched even in the church system. The reason for them acknowledging that a problem exists is simple. Dalit people are getting educated, they are not satisfied with how they are being treated and are agitating and demanding their rights. The acknowledgement is not new. It is just a way to pacify the Dalit community for now.

If they were really serious about changing things, they would look at allowing entry to everyone inside the church, irrespective of their caste.

SS: What do you think can be done to change things on ground?

IT: I genuinely believe that churches should start promoting inter-caste marriages. Churches usually allow it to happen when a couple falls in love, but I think the practice of marrying within your own caste only adds to people identifying with one group. It divides people. The Catholic Church should initiate this new culture.

Within the system, it should create opportunities for those from all castes so that anyone who wants to join the church can do so without feeling discriminated.

Apart from being Dalit priest of the Dalit Christian Church, Thusnevish has set up a home for the elderly and a home for blind people in his village. He has ordained 10 priests since he started the Dalit Christian Church and plans on widening the movement to reach out to more people from the community.

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