Indian Catholics believe orphanage persecution is political, land conflict 2023

Two priests were detained during a police search on a church-run orphanage in Madhya Pradesh, India, to investigate allegations that it served beef and taught the Bible.

Catholic leaders believe the crackdown is about orphanage land control.

Two priests arrested during the raid on St. Francis Sevadham Orphanage in Shyampur, Diocese of Sagar, were freed on bond May 8 after being charged with obstructing the state’s child rights panel during an unannounced inspection.

The orphanage houses 44 children, 21 girls and 23 males, up to 19.

This was the third attack on a church-run facility in a month, according to local media. The right-wing BJP party governs Madhya Pradesh, which has ties to Hindu nationalist organizations that are hostile to religious minorities, including Christians.

Bishop James Athikalam of Sagar told UCA News, “This is part of an ongoing campaign against Christians to discredit their work among the poor and downtrodden.

Father Sabu Puthenpurackal of the Diocese of Sagar said the St. Francis Orphanage has provided “humanitarian service for orphans and differently-abled children for the past 150 years” and is “being unnecessarily raided by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Child Welfare Committees (CWC) without any prior information.”

The orphanage has waited three years for civil registration renewal. Since December 2021, Puthenpurackal stated, it has been harassed.

Puthenpurackal said police and CWC officials surprised the orphanage on Dec. 6 after an allegation that youngsters were offered meat. Madhya Pradesh bans cow slaughter and beef eating due to Hindu sentiments. Officials also investigated allegations that people were taught the Bible, which might violate India’s anti-conversion laws.

The cook, orphanage director, five boys, and five girls were interrogated by inspectors.

UCA News interviewed orphanage director Father Sinto Varghese, who disputed the claims. He stated the institution offers chicken and vegetables, not meat, and that while some Christian youngsters have Bibles, no one is tried to convert.

The diocese filed a lawsuit to stop government officials from forcefully removing all orphans. One court sided with the bishop, ordering all parties to maintain the status quo, and another hearing was scheduled for May 9.

The day before the hearing, child welfare workers arrived at the orphanage with police to search for and seize undisclosed papers. Puthenpurackal said the facility was trashed, with computers and papers damaged and cell phones taken.

He said the orphanage’s century-old church altar was desecrated. Puthenpurackal claimed two priests were detained for protesting the defilement.

Puthenpurackal deemed the official’s conduct “illegal in action and contempt of court procedure.”

While the raids and their aftermath continue, the Madhya Pradesh High Court is hearing a lawsuit over the 277-acre parcel of property on which the orphanage resides, which was granted to the Catholic Church by India’s erstwhile British overlords.

The local government has refused to extend the orphanage’s lease on the site, and Catholic leaders fear the raids and accusations are meant to influence the court’s verdict.

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