03/09/2005, 00.00
INDIA
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Falsely accused priest arrested in Gujarat

Hindu fundamentalists persuade a woman to press charges against a Jesuit priest. Two months ago the same woman had cleared him of the same charges.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – An Indian Jesuit was arrested and jailed in Gujarat (western India) on the basis of false accusations made by a woman who claimed he tried to convert and have sex with her.

Christian leaders have called on the Gujarat state government to immediately intervene and secure the unconditional release of the Fr Prasad Gonsalves, who was arrested "only because he is a missionary".

Fr Gonsalves was sent to jail on March 7 by a court in Radhanpur after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) convinced Shanteben Gulabbhai from Jawaharnagar village to press charges against him.

Two months ago Ms Gulabbhai had asked Father Gonsalves for help in finding a place to live in her district, which is located some 300 km from the Banaskantha district (northern Gujarat) where the Jesuit priest is a trustee of the local Catholic Ashram, which runs a low-cost housing project for the poor and disadvantaged.

The clergyman had told the woman that he could not help given the great distance between them. After being turned down she went to the police to press charges against him only to change her mind later saying that she just wanted to get back at the Jesuit. Father Gonsalves eventually said he would try to do something to help the woman.

The case seemed closed till March 5 when a Hindu newspaper in the city of Patan picked up and ran with the story, repeating the accusations.

Pressured by Hindu groups a court summoned Father Gonsalves and placed him under judicial custody on the basis of the Atrocity Act on the basis of Ms Gulabbhai's testimony. However, she is not a credible witness. Her own brother, Ishwarbhai Ramsinhbhai Rana, in a written statement alleged that over the years she has acquired the reputation of being an extortionist, literally terrorising her neighbours.

Local Christian leaders and groups have strongly denounced Father Gonsalves. Dolphy D'Souza, Vice-President of the All India Catholic Union, condemned the arbitrary detention of the clergyman, which in his view was only motivated by the fact that he "is a missionary doing good for the people".

Mr D'Souza has called on the Gujarat government to secure Father Gonsalves's immediate release and punish all those who engage in vile acts against minorities.

Gujarat's state government is led by the Hindu nationalist Baharatiya Janata Party (BJP), well-known for its support for Hindu fundamentalism and opposition to religious minorities, especially Christians.

Fr Cedric Prakash, director of Prashant, a Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, pointed the finger against Hindu fundamentalist groups "who resort to using criminals to slander the Church". (LF)

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