India's top Catholic body has condemned the arrest of a Jesuit priest on charges of abetting the gang rape and abduction of five women working for a Christian group in eastern India, calling it an attempt to "falsely implicate" the clergy to show the church in a poor light ahead of the upcoming election.
"There are efforts to implicate the church … and discredit the good services it has been doing," Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said, referring to the arrest of Fr. Alphonse Aind, the principal of the Jesuit-run Stockmann Memorial Middle School, according to the Catholic news website UCAnews.
On June 19, a group of six unidentified men who were on their motorcycles with their faces covered abducted the women, who were performing a play at the school to raise awareness about migration and human trafficking in the Khunti district of the Jharkhand State. The men took them to a nearby forest area and then raped them while filming the incident.
Responding to the incident, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the outgoing archbishop of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, told AsiaNews, "I feel great sorrow."
The women work with a Christian NGO, Asha Kiran, which means "Ray of Hope," and police claim that the priest had asked the women to go with the accused and later also told them to not report the incident.
Fr. Aind was interrogated, detained and eventually released on a personal bond.
Church officials suspect the clergy was implicated to send a message that the church has links with a local controversial movement, called "Pathalgadi," which has declared sovereignty over a few villages in the area and generally do not allow outsiders to enter into their "territory." The governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking to divide the voters along religion lines ahead of the 2019 general election, they suspect.
Police have arrested two of the accused and identified the four others, and claim that they thought the play was against their movement and therefore wanted to teach them a lesson.
Initial reports suggested that some government officials wanted to turn local people against the movement and they sent their goons to commit the crime which they would blame on those associated with the movement.
However, Additional Director General of Police RK Malik told media, "The police never takes action on the basis of religion or caste. They do it within the framework of the law and the police have done the same in the case of the gang rape. The allegations are completely false as Father Alfonse had called the troupe to perform a play in the missionary school. When the criminals came, Father Alfonse asked them to leave out the nuns and told the five women to go with the culprits for two hours."
A poll of global experts by Thomson Reuters Foundation found this week that India is the world's most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and slave labor.
India is unsafe also for the Christian minority. Attacks on Christians have sharply risen even since the BJP party won the 2014 general election.