ACN News: Monday, 6th August 2012 – INDIA
Catholics in northeast India – working for education and against human trafficking and rural emigration
By Reinhard Backes
Bettiah is the capital of West Champaran, a district in the state of Bihar in northeast India. The region borders on Nepal. Bettiah is also the seat of a Catholic diocese which has been led for the past 14 years by Bishop Victor Henry Thakur, who himself originates from West Champaran. Aged 58, he speaks with pride to staff of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) of the more than 200-year-old Christian tradition in his homeland. In the whole state of Bihar the “Bettiah Christians” are regarded as the first Christian believers in the region.
Back in December 1745 the Italian Capuchin Father Joseph Maria Bernini founded the first mission station in Bettiah. This was in response to an appeal from the local Prince Raja Dhurup Singh to the then reigning Pope Benedict XIV, asking him to allow Father Bernini to remain in northeast India. The Raja provided this Capuchin priest – who had originally been destined for Tibet to help strengthen the mission there – with a house and a number of parcels of land. Later the Jesuits took over and continued Bernini's work.
According to Bishop Thakur there are now just 8,000 out of an original population of around 70,000 Catholics in the diocese of Bettiah. Most have left the region in search of work; many have gone to other parts of the country, while others have emigrated to Britain or the United States. The principal cause of this dramatic exodus from the predominantly rural West Champaran region is the economic insecurity that local people feel in trying to make ends meet in this region of heavy rainfall and months-long flooding. "Most of the Christians are dependent rural workers who live a hand to mouth existence and therefore see emigration as their only salvation", Bishop Victor adds. For him the obvious solution is to provide the children with the best possible school education and to engage in a pastoral outreach aimed at strengthening families, women, children and adolescents.
"We are attempting to make clear to the parents that a good education can help their children to escape from poverty", the bishop explains. There are already many examples of this, and additionally those who manage to improve their lives through education will not forget their homeland but will give a great deal back to it, he believes. Currently the diocesan authority and the various religious communities are between them responsible for 16 primary and nine secondary schools within the diocese of Bettiah. But it has become harder to maintain them, Bishop Victor tells us, since the state guarantees a free education yet at the same time demands ever increasing building standards of the school authorities. "This simply ignores the reality and undermines our work, even though our schools are the principal contributors to development in the rural areas", he adds.
Large parts of the infrastructure of West Champaran, where in 1917 Mahatma Gandhi launched one of his non-violent campaigns against British rule, are still extremely inadequate to this day. The electricity supply is unreliable and there is a lack of metalled roads, the bishop emphasises. He is also deeply concerned at the soaring crime rates and the human trafficking, both of which are fuelled by the widespread poverty and the proximity to the very permeable Nepalese frontier. The Church is trying to draw attention to the dangers posed by gangs of human traffickers.
However, the caste mentality is much less pronounced in West Champaran than elsewhere in India, according to Bishop Victor, and generally speaking, the members of the various different religions – Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and the members of the Christian denominations – get on well together. This is an attitude that was already encouraged in the 18th century by Raja Dhurup Singh. He never became a Christian; but after his death he was buried, at his own request, with a cross on his breast.
ACN has been helping the diocese of Bettiah for many years now, among other things with support for the life and ministry of clergy and religious and grants for the repair of churches and schools and the provision of means of transport.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 162 languages and 48 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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