Mother Teresa nuns attacked in Kerala

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The Independent Online

Attacks on priests and nuns from Mother Teresa's old order in the southern state of Kerala have spotlighted the controversy surrounding Christian missionary work in India.

Attacks on priests and nuns from Mother Teresa's old order in the southern state of Kerala have spotlighted the controversy surrounding Christian missionary work in India.

Two nuns, in the distinctive white habits, edged in blue, of the Missionaries of Charity, were bringing food for the poor inhabitants of a slum on the outskirts of Kozhikode when they were dragged from their Jeep by a gang who broke the crosses they wore round their necks.

But passers-by intervened and the nuns escaped to a police station and phoned their order. An hour later, another Jeep arrived at the slum, this time with the Mother Superior Kusamam, a missionary from Kenya and others from the order. This time, a 40-strong gang attacked them with iron rods.

Nine nuns and priests were taken to hospital with head injuries. Fifteen men were arrested and police are treating the case as attempted murder after officers were believed to have been assaulted.

Several of suspects are said to be low-ranking members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu party that was voted out of power in federal government elections in May. But the BJP has denied involvement, and claims that the incident was stage-managed by rivals to discredit the party.

The attacks are potentially explosive because they centre on the issue of conversion. Reports say that the attackers accused the nuns and priests of trying to the convert the slum-dwellers to Christianity.

The area is inhabited by Dalits, the old untouchables of the caste system. Christian missionaries have found fertile ground among them. Treated by other Hindus as being at the bottom of the social pile, many Dalits choose to convert to escape the atrocious treatment they suffer.

Untouchability is officially outlawed, but all over India Dalits are still treated as fifth-class citizens. There are villages where they are not allowed to drink clean water from the village well used by other castes, but must drink dirty water. Because of the caste system's rigidity, it is almost impossible for Dalits to rise from their lowly station. If Dalit men dare to marry a woman from a higher caste, both risk death at the hands of the woman's family.

India, with its millions of dispossessed, has proved a good hunting ground for Christian missionaries, especially among the worse-off communities.

But the conversion of lower-caste Hindus has enraged the Hindu right-wing, who resent what they see as fellow-believers being conned into renouncing their religion. They accuse the missionaries of using charity work as a bribe to persuade the Dalits to convert. The nuns and priests insist they were delivering only food, not trying to convert the people.

What makes the issue potentially even more divisive is that Kerala is religiously mixed, with 20 per cent of the population Christians whose faith is centuries old; they have nothing to do with modern conversions.

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