By Saji Thomas
Government officials in a remote area of central Indian Madhya Pradesh state have impounded the property of a Catholic mission and forced its priest out of the premises, allegedly under pressure from right-wing Hindu activists.
The 20-year-old mission in Mohanpur village of Guna district was “sealed” over a land title dispute and Father Siljo Kidangan forced out on Sept. 12, local Bishop Anthony Chirayath told ucanews.com.
Father Kidangan said government officials acted under pressure from members of hard-line Hindu groups who are opposed to the mission’s work and accuse it of trying to secure religious conversions.
The mission aims to help poor villagers by coordinating several welfare projects.
Mohanpur and some 40 nearby villages are provided with basic amenities and a hostel for about 15 boys studying at a nearby government school.
A Hindu right-wing activist group on Sept. 11 went to the mission demanding that the priest and schoolboys vacate or face dire consequences, Bishop Chirayath said.
The priest refused to move.
However, the next morning government officials, a village headman and two police constables threatened the priest and confiscated the hostel by locking and sealing it.
Local Sub-Divisional Magistrate Dinesh Shukla confirmed with ucanews.com that the government has taken over the land and the hostel building as the Church “lost a case” with the Land Revenue Board on Sept. 8.
Two local Hindus filed a case in 2005 claiming that the Church did not have mandatory title deeds for the mission land, which was donated to a tribal Catholic priest by a local tribal villager.
Permission from a district official known as the ‘Collector’ was said to be mandatory to transfer a title deed for tribal land.
However, local missionaries had apparently been unaware of the requirement and did not apply for it, the bishop said.
Bishop Chirayath said the mission has now sought intervention on the matter by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
“If the church authorities get any relief from a court of law, we will return it, but currently the land belongs to the government,” Shukla told ucanews.com.
Father Kidangan, who has taken shelter in a nearby mission, said right-wing Hindu activists had been constantly making false accusations that his mission was using fraudulent means to win tribal converts.
He said a local law prohibiting conversions without informing government officials was being used as a tactic by people who are opposed to the presence of the mission.
The law also criminalizes conversion from one religion to another by use of purported force or allurement or fraud.
Christian leaders such as Father Kidangan say the law is being unfairly used to target church welfare services.
Bishop Chirayath said the 41 villages under the mission had about 30 Catholic families living in fear as Hindu hardliners tried to force them to give up their Christian faith.
The state, where the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power for past 14 years, has witnessed increased harassment of Christians, including attacks on pastors, places of worship and educational institutions.
Church leaders complain that some fanatical groups see scaring tribal people away from Christianity as a way of furthering their agenda to enshrine Hindu dominance.