Nun Serving Lepers in India Can Stay After Visa Row

A British nun who had been asked to leave India despite her remarkable service to leprosy patients was assured visa “without limit of time” in a rare gesture by the Indian government Tuesday.

India’s federal interior minister P. Chidambaram assured Jacqueline Jean McEwan could stay “as long as she likes,” saying the foreign department’s earlier notice asking her to leave the country by Monday was a technical mistake, Press Trust of India (PTI) reported Tuesday.

“It feels great to be with my well-wishers, my own kith and kin, mostly those inflicted with leprosy,” Sr. Jean, as the 63-year-old nun is popularly known in this southern city of Bangalore, told The Times of India. “I will strive for their welfare. There is no meaning in going back to the U.K. when my people are here.”

The notice was “presumably” based on the ground that complete documents had not been submitted, but “orders are being issued today. She can stay as long as she likes,” PTI quoted the minister as saying.

Dr. Sajan K. George from the Bangalore-based Global Council of Indian Christians told The Christian Post he was thankful to the interior minister and the United Progressive Alliance government, which is led by the Indian National Congress, India’s Grand Old Party.

Hours before her flight to London was scheduled to depart from Bangalore, the capital of the south Indian state of Karnataka, Monday, the nun received an email from the interior ministry notifying that her resident permit had been extended for one month, the period during which she would be granted a long-term visa. It said the “matter is subject to the usual checks and nothing adverse.”

Sr. Jean, who comes from the Montfort Missionaries in Britain, has worked with a Bangalore-based Catholic charity, Sumanahalli Society, since 1982. She runs a mobile medical clinic looking after about 1,000 leprosy patients in slums in Bangalore, also known as Bengaluru. She and other medical and paramedical professionals were allowed to reside in India through the Commonwealth Agreement under which people of Commonwealth countries could travel to each other’s countries without visas.

“I am happy that Sister Jean can continue to work for the poor patients in the spirit of Mother Teresa,” Society’s Director Father George Kannanthanam told Indo-Asian News Service. “Our yeoman work would have been seriously affected by her absence otherwise.”

The mood at the charity was cheerful once again and several leprosy patients made a beeline to wish the woman they call their “Mother Teresa.” “We hope she remains here us for the rest of our lives. Without her, we are in the dark. Nobody would look after leprosy patients like her here if she’d left Bangalore on Monday,” a close associate of the nun told The Times of India.

It was suspected that behind the government’s earlier move to revoke the nun’s resident permit was increasing violence against Christians in Karnataka, which is seen as one of the most hostile states toward the minority community. Last month, a Catholic man and two Hindu visitors with leprosy were beaten by suspected Hindu extremists and jailed on charges of conversion in Bangalore, according to Compass Direct News.

In India, as also in many other South Asian countries, leprosy is still seen as physically contagious and spiritually impure by sections of the people due to a lack of awareness. Leprosy has officially been eliminated in India however 130,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.

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