Catholic Church pioneered outreach to Dalits, advocate says

By Hillary Senour

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Dalit school girls at Good Shepard School Uddamarry, Andhra Pradesh.

A human rights advocate says the Catholic Church has been the leader in reaching out to India's “untouchables,” in what continues to remains a dire situation for Dalits in the country.

“The Catholic Church of this country has pioneered this whole mission of reaching out to the poor,” Kumar Swamy told EWTN News in a June interview.

Swamy, who serves as the South India Director of the Dalit Freedom Network, praised the Catholic Church's work serving India's outcasts, but said it is “crucial” for all Christian denominations to work together in order to “empower” Dalits and eradicate the centuries-old social hierarchy.

The Dalits, also known to the caste system as the “untouchables,” make up nearly a quarter of India's population at roughly 250 million people, but are regarded as inherently impure and too lowly to even be included in the caste system.

Due to this perception, many Dalits are expected, or forced, to take menial jobs dealing with sorting trash, cleaning  human waste or even prostitution in order to survive.

“This is modern slavery,” Swamy said, “They are viewed as untouchables, lesser than human beings and lesser than animals … This situation has to change.”

Swamy said his hope is for his “brothers and sisters across the world to pray for India, to be our voice, to be our ambassadors, to be our champions for the Dalits of India.”

Caste discrimination was technically outlawed in 1950 after India won its independence from Great Britain, but lack of law enforcement and cultural beliefs perpetuate the centuries-old social hierarchy.

“I believe it is only the church that has the solution for this way forward, to empower and emancipate, to bring the God-given human dignity to these people,” he said.

Swamy also heads up the All India Christian Council at the state level in Karnataka, which is dedicated to “leading the fight for religious freedom for all and emancipation of Dalits,” and has seen much support from Catholics.

The Catholic Church in India is “very much a part of” the Council's mission, Swamy said.

Co-operation between denominations is essential, he said, because Christians have been facing “unprecedented persecution” in the form of “physical, violent and aggressive” attacks throughout the country in recent history.

“This is the time where we put aside denominational (differences) and ... stand together in Christian unity,” Swamy said.

Although she was not the first Catholic missionary to India's poor, Swamy said that Mother Teresa, “who is a household name” in the country, brought increased awareness to the plight of the Dalit people through her work founding the Missionaries of Charity.

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