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Most bishops are of higher castes; most Catholics are not

The earliest European missionary efforts, trying to convert the upper castes, abandoned the lower castes. Early missionaries reasoned that by converting a few Brahmans they could convert the nation. But the efforts failed. Later, missionaries began to focus efforts on the lower castes. However, by then the old caste differences were part of the Catholic Indian portrait.

Remnants of caste groupings plague the church in India and upset many, even those who understand its historic roots.

Shortly before Pope John Paul II visited India in 1999 a group calling itself the dalit Christian Liberation Movement wrote him a letter saying, “oppression and persecution of the dalits within the church remains as serious and appalling as the oppression and persecution of the religious minorities in the country.” Their letter was widely circulated.

Since most Indian Catholics come from the tribal and dalit castes, it bothers these groups that the Catholic church leadership is largely from the upper castes. Out of 156 Catholic bishops in India, 150 belong to the upper caste communities. Out of 12,500 Catholic priests, only 600 are from the dalit communities. This is true despite the fact that an estimated 75 percent or more of Indian Catholics are not part of the upper castes.

Last year history was made when the Vatican appointed a dalit the first Indian archbishop. Marampudi Joji became archbishop of Hyderabad, capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. He is now the leader of 90,000 Catholics.

-- Thomas C. Fox

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001