09/13/2005, 00.00
INDIA
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Father Agnos, a tribal Catholic priest, dies a "martyr for peace"

by Nirmala Carvalho
Church leaders in Jharkhand and human rights activists point the finger at Hindu extremists, who are likely responsible for the murder. They and local power barons want to subjugate local Tribals to exploit the wealth of their lands.

Simdega (AsiaNews) – Church leaders and local human rights activists are convinced that "the sinister hand of the nationalist Extreme Right" could be behind yesterday's murder of a Catholic priest of Tribal origin in the diocese of Simdega (Jharkhand) where Tribals (aka Adivasi) are a majority. According to initial investigations, Hindu fundamentalists were responsible for what happened.

Yesterday, the Adivasi Adhikar Rashka Manch (AARM) had organised a rally in Simdega to discuss the forthcoming local panchayat (local village council) elections. The AARM, which has 60,000 members, had called on the district residents to protest a decision by the High Court to end preferential treatment for the Adivasi in the local village council. Until recently, they were entitled to 100 per cent of the council seats.  Upper caste Hindus challenged the practice before the High Court and won, giving them the means to terrorise the Adivasi into submission.

A group of men armed with knives, arrows and swords stormed the rally. Fr Anand Jojo, vicar general of the diocese, told AsiaNews that the more than 40 Hindu aggressors riding some 15 motor bikes tried to disperse the 3,500 demonstrators shouting and making threats. They shouted that Tribals should stop demonstrating and accept instead the court's decision; they then started using violence.

During the clashes, Fr Agnos Bara, assistant to Baba Bira parish priest, was knifed to death as he tried to calm and defend the demonstrators. His funeral is scheduled for this afternoon.

For Card Telesphore Toppo, chairman of Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, Father Agnos has become a "martyr for peace".

"It is very sad," he told AsiaNews. "He was trying to pacify the fuming mob that came armed to attack these peace loving people who were having a peaceful gathering."
According to Father Jojo, "behind the priest's murder, we can see the sinister hand of Extreme Right forces that profit from the tacit support of the government and have created troubles in the area. We demand an in-dept investigation and a judicial inquiry into this heinous killing."

In an interview with AsiaNews, John Dayal, chairman of the All India Christian Union and member of the National Integration Council, said he would urgently write a letter to the Indian Prime Minister, who also chairs the National Integration Council.

"The identity of the guilty [. . .] must await the result of the formal investigations, but prima facie evidence points to the same political forces that have traumatised the entire tribal belt of central India from Rajasthan to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand.

"In these are states, Hindu extremists have distributed hate material and tried to open Hindutva schools and have carried out coercive ceremonies designed to reconvert people back to Hinduism," Mr Dayal said.

"These are also areas where the upper castes, the rich and powerful and the timber and mineral barons are working together to disempower the Tribals and deny them even basic self governance," he added.

Father Agnos's case is only the latest in a string of violent anti-Christian episodes in India.

But in spite of the persecution and discrimination the Church has to face in this country, Cardinal Toppo remains confident.

"I am not frightened by the situation. The Church has lived through many more dangerous times. You just have to look at its history and you'll see that it bears witness through persecution and that it has come out stronger from it."

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