Some 1,000 Dalit Christians reconverted to Hinduism on Monday in a southern district in India on the 117th anniversary of the birth of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit leader who fought for social freedom for India's untouchables.
The former Christian Dalits from the town of Tirunelveli were reconverted by the Hindu Monks Tamil Nadu Council, according to The Times of India. The process of formally returning to Hinduism involved an atonement ritual followed by a purification rite.
"We'll purify all those who return to Hinduism by sprinkling Ganga theertha (Ganga water) and Sethu theertha (sethu water),"said the president of the ultra-conservative political party Hindu Makkal Katchia (HMK), Arjun Sampath, according to AsiaNews.
In addition to the ritual, HMK converts received a Hindu name, took an oath, signed affidavits, and will get conversion certificates.
The HMK plans to re-convert another 20,000 Christians in Villupuram district in southern India, according to AsiaNews.
Christian Dalits in Tamil Nadu state are said to face caste discrimination. Upper caste Christians clashed with lower Dalit Christians just last month when police had to intervene. Two people died as a result of the conflict. The tension between the two groups of Catholics, Dalits and non-Dalits, is so bad that they have separate cemeteries, and in church, separate pews.
"It is an unfortunate situation. I don't want to comment on it," said Father S. Lourdusamy, former executive secretary of the Catholic Bishop Conference of India, according to The Times of India. "I have requested Catholic Bishops to take remedial steps. But nothing is being done to stop the discrimination against Dalit Christians. This is resulting in such conversions."
Pope John Paul II had urged Tamil Nadu bishops in 2003 to overcome this division.
"Any semblance of a caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is a countersign to authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality and a serious hindrance to the Church's mission of evangelization," the late pope said.
"Therefore, customs or traditions that perpetuate or reinforce caste division should be sensitively reformed so that they may become an expression of the solidarity of the whole Christian community," he said. "As the Apostle Paul teaches us, 'if one member suffers, all suffer together' (1 Cor, 12:26). It is the Church's obligation to work unceasingly to change hearts, helping all people to see every human being as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ, and therefore a member of our own family."
India has a total of 24 million Christians. Within this population, Dalit Christians constitute 15 million while tribal Christians account for 3 million.