India: Police Charge Nearly 500 Priests for Christian Retreat During Pandemic

Archbishop of Hyderabad Poola Anthony (C) wears a facemask during the evening mass of the Lord's Supper of Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples and inaugurating the Easter triduum, at Saint Joseph Cathedral in Hyderabad on April 1, 2021. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) …
NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

Police in Kerala, India, took legal action on Thursday against 480 Church of South India (CSI) priests for their role in organizing a retreat that has resulted in over 100 confirmed Chinese coronavirus cases, local media revealed.

The CSI retreat began on April 13 and brought together hundreds of the region’s clergymen shortly before the eruption of what is now considered the world’s worst national coronavirus outbreak. India has been seeing as many as 400,000 confirmed coronavirus cases a day this week and has documented over 21 million coronavirus cases since China failed to contain the Chinese coronavirus in Wuhan in late 2019.

The Christian event was far from the only mass gathering in India shortly before the eruption of cases. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the ritual bathing in the Ganges River in March, a Hindu tradition that, while outdoors, occurs in close quarters. Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also repeatedly hosted political rallies for thousands of supporters, prompting outrage from opposition leaders urging a national lockdown. Neither Modi nor the Hindu leaders responsible for the Ganges River event have faced any legal action.

Police in Kerala confirmed the priests of the CSI will not escape legal scrutiny.

“We have registered a case against 480 priests and the church management based on the statement of the Tahsildar. The investigation is on now. We are trying to elicit details by collecting photographs and videos regarding the event,” K.R. Manoj, a police inspector in the region, told the Press Trust of India (PTI). “As per media reports, several priests, who participated in the event got infected and two priests had succumbed to it. At present, I cannot tell anything. We will investigate all aspects.”

Manoj stated that the charges against the clergymen stem from state law — specifically, the Kerala Epidemic Diseases Act (KEDA) — which may in part explain the discrepancy in application of law between the retreat and other mass events.

Officials told The Hindu that about 110 Christian clergymen — including priests, bishops, and other leaders — who attended the retreat tested positive for Chinese coronavirus and that two have died. Another five are in “serious” condition. The situation has caused outrage not just among the general Indian public, but within authorities of the CSI. A group of priests and lay members of the church reportedly sent a letter to church authorities demanding consequences for those who insisted on holding the event as the number of coronavirus cases soared nationwide. PTI reported that a group of church members also lodged a complaint with the government, and some made their complaints public on social media.

Multiple reports indicate that between 300-400 church leaders participated in the event, which leaves unclear why more than that number were charged with violating epidemic laws.

Priests, who by the nature of their work must engage with large numbers of members of the public, have been among the most severely affected by the growing coronavirus crisis in India. At least 15 priests of all Christian denominations have died since the pandemic began, according to the New Indian Express, despite the fact that Christianity is a minority religion in the country and thus India does not have an extremely large population of Christian clergy. Nine have died in Kerala alone in the past ten days. Kerala is the country’s most Christian region and home to its oldest Christian population, who trace their families’ conversions back to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas following the crucifixion of Jesus.

“Priests of various Churches in the country are vulnerable to Covid [Chinese coronavirus] infection because of the nature of their work and services towards society. They had to travel a lot even during the pandemic,” Father Bovas Mathew, official spokesperson of the Syro Malankara Church, told the New Indian Express. “For instance, a priest named Rajan Philip of the Orthodox Church died of Covid after he had to attend a service at a home. He had gone there for a prayer to help a Covid patient recover. That patient became negative but the priest tested positive. He succumbed to the infection 40 days ago.”

Christian populations in India have endured mounting discrimination, including violent attacks on known Christians in village communities and on churches, since the ruling Hindu nationalist government took power. The number of attacks on Christians increased by 57 percent between the first quarters of 2019 and 2020, according to the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). The pattern of discrimination continued throughout 2020 and has tainted efforts to contain the Chinese coronavirus and issue aid to those in locked down communities.

“Our partners on the ground are reporting that they are finding Christians in homes where they’ve just been forgotten and they aren’t getting food or anything like that,” Isaac Six, director of advocacy for the Christian aid organization Open Doors, told Breitbart News this week. “A lot of Indians are subsistence farmers and they live on day wages. If they don’t get wages in a day, it can be a matter of hours or a few days before they run out of food.”

“Aid comes from the federal or state government and it’s handed out at the local level and where we see discrimination is with local leaders who will pick and choose who gets the aid,” Six explained. “And when Christians have come and asked for aid, they’ve been told to go away or to wait until all the usually Hindu community gets the aid. Same with work — when lockdowns end or local leaders allow some people to go back to work; they’ll pick and choose who can go back to work and they’ll sometimes tell Christian communities ‘you have you wait; you can’t go back yet.’”

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