07/04/2006, 00.00
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Andhra Pradesh: Mother Teresa sisters attacked "for political reasons"

by Nirmala Carvalho

The Archbishop of Hyderabad accused Hindu extremists of creating false accusations against the sisters to bring down the Christian chief minister and his government. More details have emerged about the attack and apprehension of the sisters.

Hyderabad (AsiaNews) – A recent attack against four sisters of Mother Teresa in Andhra Pradesh "has clear political undertones", said the Archbishop of Hyderabad, Mgr Marampudi Joji. He was giving his reaction to AsiaNews about the violence, apprehension, and false charges by a crowd of Hindu extremists against four Missionaries of Charity who were visiting a government hospital on 25 June.

"I attribute responsibility for what happened to Hindu fundamentalists who were hoping to discredit the Congress government currently in power, in view of forthcoming state elections," he said. "The fundamentalists are pointing to the bogeyman of conversions to discredit our Christian Chief minister and to bring down his government."

The Missionaries of Charity started their apostolate in Tirupathi in 1986. Tirupathi is a famous Hindu shrine in Chittoor District, Cuddapah Diocese. The sisters run Nirmala Sadan, a home for orphans and destitute people.  The management of the Ruia Hospital invited them to visit patients and to take care of the dying, orphans and old people.

Patients with AIDS or infected by HIV admitted in the hospital have been entrusted to the care of the sisters. There are many signed agreements between the hospital authorities and the sisters regarding mutual support in taking care of the patients. Very often, the hospital authorities ask the sisters to take into their home babies born with special needs and destitute old patients who are abandoned at the hospital.

As usual, on Sunday 25 June, four sisters – Sr Maria Julia, Sr Chriselda, Sr Emma Felesia and Sr Reena Francis – went to the hospital to visit the poor patients. Two went to the orthopedic ward while the other two went to the HIV/AIDS ward. The first two were consoling a boy who had met with an accident when a man stopped them and asked them why they were visiting the patients. While the sisters were replying, a crowd of around 40 people gathered, with cameramen and press reporters. They started to accuse the sisters of evangelizing and converting patients, especially those who were dying.

The sisters were taken to the hospital's main building and the crowd swelled to around 300 people, all belonging to the Bharatia Janata Party [BJP – India's largest political party with fundamentalist-nationalist leanings] and the Hindu Dharma Parirakshana Samithi [Group for the defence of the Hindu religion]

In the meantime, the other two sisters left the ward and came towards the main building, surprised to see a big crowd around their sisters. They were also subjected to the same treatment. The Hindus did not allow the sisters to leave the hospital premises nor to contact their superior. Their bags were opened and checked for any "religious pamphlets" they may have used for proselystism, but nothing was found except for a prayer book.

The sisters were forced to stay in the hospital for two hours, enduring insults and abuse from the crowd. The most ferocious people threatened to remove the sisters' blue and white saris – a symbol of charity across the world, even among non-Christians – and to force them to wear saffron-coloured clothes, a symbol of Hinduism. Others threatened them to take them to Tirumala hill – the city's most famous shrine is on top – to force them to worship their gods there.

In the meantime, some hospital managers and local BJP leaders visited the wards and took false statements from three patients to the effect that the sisters had sought to convert them. They also took false statements from two nurses. This "proof" was presented to police officers who came to the hospital only at 8pm. The police officers treated the four Missionaries of Charity like criminals, accusing them of proselytism, and took them to the Alipiri police station. At 10.30pm, they were released thanks to the intervention of the Archbishop of Hyderabad, Mgr Marampudi Joji, who called the chief minister and asked him to help the sisters.

The following morning, the archbishop called a press conference supported by the Andhra Pradesh Christian Federation (APCF), an ecumenical body of all Churches and Christian denominations in the state, to condemn the harassment of the sisters and the false accusations made against them. The decisive intervention of the archbishop and the union of Christian communities prompted the authorities to drop the charges against the four sisters of Mother Teresa and to open an inquiry against the instigators of the attack. The sisters have been invited to resume their apostolate.
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