Emerging threats to religious liberty have been a concern of the Catholic Church in the United States in recent years, but they are a daily challenge for Catholics in India.
When Bishop Jerome Dhas Varuvel of the Diocese of Kuzhithurai, India, visited the Diocese of Wilmington last week, he said the church in India routinely encounters government roadblocks in its ministry to the people.
“In this part of the world religious freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution,” Bishop Varuvel, 64, told The Dialog. “Our governments are different in different regions,” he said.
Hinduism is India’s major religion and, the bishop explained, some towns and cities range from Hindu fundamentalist to “ordinary Hindu.”
While Catholics in fundamentalist areas of India experience direct oppression, “in our area we don’t experience direct attack,” Bishop Varuvel said. But when the church wants to renovate or build something, permissions can be delayed and projects blocked because they’re for a Catholic ministry.
“If you go to the government for planning, the first question they put to you is “Will you convert? Will you convert?”
Bishop Varuvel said, “I believe I’m as good an Indian as they [non-Christians] are. Sometimes I say I’m even better, because I have served the country as a religious [a Salesian priest before he was ordained a bishop last year]. I’ve always served totally in the country as a Christian. They are challenging my identity. … I will not give up my right to anyone. I will go on fighting my way for religious freedom til the end.”
Bishop Varuvel is the first bishop of the recently formed Kuzhithurai diocese. The church is well-established in the area, having been part of the Diocese of Kottar.
Indian Catholics trace their heritage back to the 1st century and St. Thomas.
Bishop Varuvel has made his priority in the diocese the founding of its first Catholic hospital.
“It’s a priority people can respect,” the bishop said.
Father Antony William Rayjayan, a chaplain for Christiana Health Care and a resident at Holy Family Church in Newark, is a priest of Bishop Varuvel’s diocese “on loan” to Wilmington. He noted that there’s only one Catholic hospital in India and health care in Kuzhithurai consists only of regional dispensaries.
“When we talk about health care,” Father Rayjayan said, the government isn’t “ready to give any permission but health care is an urgent need. We cannot get decent health care from the government hospitals. Sad to say that.”
Father Jaya Prakash, who accompanied Bishop Varuvel, runs St. Xavier’s Nursing College, for the Kuzhithurai diocese, and is spearheading the quest for a Catholic hospital where the trained nurses can practice.
“We don’t have facilities for critical care,” Father Prakash said. “We don’t have a proper health system. We have educated people for 2,000 years (Catholic and non-Catholic) in this area and now people are asking us to have a decent health care center. The bishop is willing to do this as a first priority.”
Bishop Varuvel told parishioners at Holy Family’s weekend Masses last week about his dream for a Catholic hospital.
“When we brought this issue to the churches, they responded spontaneously, he said. “The said a hospital is an important thing. They are generous toward the church here.
“We need support from America; we can’t do it by ourselves.”
The Diocese of Kuzhithurai estimates it will cost more than $5 million to build St. Xavier’s Catholic Multi-Specialty Mission Hospital. Donations for the hospital can be sent to:
Thedal Building, Bridge Ward
Kuzhithurai — 629163
Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, India