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THE PATH AHEAD / Collision of Faiths

Defying Tradition

In a mostly Hindu village in India, one priest presses ahead with his mission to draw more people to Christianity.

April 24, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Hinkal, India — Here on the front lines of competing faiths, Father Joseph D'Mello is a lonely man battling for souls against the myriad beliefs that make up Hinduism. The Catholic priest senses the undercurrent of hostility in this mainly Hindu village with each whiff of raw sewage and rotting trash from the garbage dump next to his small red-and-white church. Monsoon rains pound the corrugated iron roof like a drum.

Parishioners D'Mello's 1,500-member congregation are still frightened three years after a Hindu mob invaded the church, attacking people with bricks, rocks and clubs.

But D'Mello is defiant.

He is causing friction, even with some of his own parishioners, by insisting on celebrating one Sunday Mass in English instead of conducting services only in the local Kannada language. Nationalists are demanding that he speak only Kannada in church, even when announcing social functions such as picnics, he said. D'Mello said that the Mass in English draws more congregants because they feel more comfortable having "their dialogue with God" in English.

In his first major speech, Pope Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asserted the supremacy of Catholicism and branded other religions "deficient," said he hoped to reach out to other faiths. Although many liberals applauded the overture, the 58-year-old D'Mello hopes Benedict will enforce Catholic doctrine and not give an inch to extremists in other religions.

"The Pope should not be afraid. He should be bold," D'Mello said. "I have faced this trouble throughout my life. I live with it."

There is a limit to compromise, D'Mello added. In reaching out to other religions, Catholics cannot lose faith in their own, the priest said.

"We have learned from the beginning that there is one God," he added, quoting from the First Commandment: "He said, 'Thou shall not have strange gods before me.' "

India has long prided itself on being a secular state, where all faiths are supposed to be equal. But as the nation's economic and military strength has increased, Hindu nationalists have argued that "Hindutva," or Hindu-ness, should be the leading force in Indian culture and politics.

Nearly three-quarters of India's 1.1 billion people are Hindus. The country's 140 million Muslims make up the second-largest religious group. Christians make up the country's third major faith, followed by smaller minorities of Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

The proportion of Christians has remained roughly the same for at least 40 years. But Hindus' share of India's population has declined 3% and the Muslim community has grown by almost the same percentage, feeding some Hindus' fears that they are under threat.

Some of India's religious fault lines run through this region in the southern state of Karnataka, where Catholic missionaries have spread the gospel and provided social services such as schools and hospitals, for generations.

They made limited inroads in Hinkal. D'Mello says his congregation has grown slightly in recent years, only because Catholics have moved to the parish to find work or housing. Hinkal is a village of several hundred small, cinder-block houses with red tiled roofs in an industrial suburb of Mysore, a city famous for its ancient palaces and fragrant sandalwood.

Mysore's bishop bought a small poultry farm here and built Holy Family Church in 1998. D'Mello joined the parish in December 2003, with an assignment from the bishop to solve the language dispute.

As the sun sets on Holy Family, wandering hogs snuffle and grunt in the sprawling heap of Hinkal's waste, across a dirt road from the small church's front gate. Thursday was a slow day, as most are for D'Mello. No one came to confess sins, and only 11 members of his congregation attended evening Mass. He could do little charity work because the parish coffers had run too low.

D'Mello says it is his calling to build his congregation, to urge Hindus to place their faith in Christ instead of the cows, cobras and other beings they revere. But he can't even hand out "Soldiers of God" comic books -- with stories of the rich man and Lazarus, the pig that attacked and "A Good Cure for the Lazy" -- to non-Christian children without fear of sparking a riot.

In 2002, a mob of about 40 Hindu extremists, who accused the church of aggressively converting Hindu villagers, attacked Holy Family with bricks, rocks and clubs while 50 children were singing hymns and learning about the Bible in catechism class.

At least six people suffered broken bones, severe bruises and other injuries. A court injunction was issued prohibiting Hindu protesters from returning to the church, but its congregation doesn't feel safe.

"It's like fire inside the ash," said Mathew Benjamin Suresh, who was assaulted as he tried to shield his wife and two sons. "Any moment anything can flare up, not just against this church, but against the Christian community."

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