As Amazon synod nears end, conversations will affect situations elsewhere
Miao, India, Oct 25, 2019 / 06:01 pm (CNA) – As the Amazon Synod considers the evangelization—and exploitation—of indigenous Amazonian tribes, the conversation reflects as well on what is happening in other parts of the world.
In rural northeast India, for instance, the Church’s evangelization has reaped an abundant harvest while having to fend off outside forces that seek to exploit indigenous peoples or impede their conversion to Christianity.
The Oct. 6-27 Amazon Synod is being held at the Vatican.
In that time, bishops are considering the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, as well as their exploitation by outside forces that seek to use the land and its resources for profit. The future of the ecological system in the region is also of concern.
The synod’s working document describes in paragraph 81 the “exploitation of the riches of the Amazon region.” Among the consequences of this are listed “socio-environmental damage,” and the “corruption” of various public and religious actors who allow companies to extract resources in the sole pursuit of profit, at the expense of the land and the people who rely upon the Amazon ecosystem.
The exploitation of the region, however, is not an isolated concern, and the final documents produced from the conversations at the synod will speak to the Church’s efforts to evangelize and defend vulnerable populations around the world.
In the remote northeastern provinces of India that border China and Burma, certain tribal areas that are protected by the government have seen rapid conversions to Catholicism in recent decades, but are simultaneously threatened by economic exploitation by outside forces. These areas were long inaccessible, but more recently the Indian government has instituted limitations on who may enter these protected areas.
Some of the indigenous tribes in the region of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering China, had previously engaged in head-hunting and were still practicing animal sacrifice—which helped keep them in crippling poverty—as well as engaging in violent conflicts with each other. Then, Christianity came to the region.
Bishop George Pallipparambil is Bishop of Miao, which encompasses around 17,000 square miles in the region. Decades ago, he was working with Catholic schools in the south of India that would educate some of the children of the tribes in the northeast.
As CNA reported in 2018, the parents of the children began asking if some of the Catholic priests could come to the region and talk about Christ. Pallipparambil smuggled himself into the northeast, where evangelization and priests were banned, in 1979.
The preparatory document for the Amazon Synod addresses the need for evangelization that “cannot ‘mutilate the integrity of the Gospel message’” and which demands a “closeness, openness to dialogue, patience, and cordial welcome” of a missionary, one which hears the “cry of the poor and of the earth.”
Pallipparambil’s approach sought not to proselytize, but to meet the needs of the local tribes and provide help where needed, letting the Gospel shine through the light of his actions and conversations.
People began to convert to Christianity and the number of baptized soared, from 900 in the year 1979 to more than 90,000 presently, out of around 1.5-2 million people in the region. Arunachal Pradesh became part of the Diocese of Miao, established in 2005, and there were so many converts that another diocese had to be created in the region.
The percentage of Catholics among tribal peoples in India’s northeast is now around 25 percent, multiple times the percentage of Catholics nationally in India. While Hindus make up the majority of India’s religious demographic, the government recognizes minority religions, incuding Christianity and Islam.
Efforts similar to Bishop Pallipparambil’s are taking place elsewhere in northeast India, such as in Jharkhand state where a significant tribal population still exists.
“You have a situation where there’s a large population of tribal people the Church has been working with for now decades. And the Church has made a very great impact on all societies,” Edward Clancy, director of outreach for the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, told CNA.
These areas are considered protected by India’s government, purportedly to preserve the character of the tribes and the local environment. Yet in reality, it has been the Church that has provided much-needed education and medicine to an area that was almost 100 percent illiterate.
There is now over 67 percent literacy in the Miao diocese, Clancy said; the tribal wars have stopped there, and missionaries have taught better hygiene and nutrition.
Yet there remains a “very high poverty” level in the country’s northeast, which is a resource-rich area. As a result, many of the tribal peoples work in extracting mineral resources for little pay, exploited by outside forces.
“Poverty is a great tool when it comes to controlling people,” Clancy said of the exploitation of the indigenous peoples by outside actors. “It’s a benefit to have impoverished, illiterate people with no hope because it’s cheaper, easier.”
In addition, Hindu nationalists have gained greater political power in India in recent years with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and with it a rise in Hindu extremism.
More party members are now saying the converts in the northeast should be Hindu rather than Christian, since they lived in India all along and the Christians are a minority religion. Several states of India have laws regulating religious conversions, and Arunachal Pradesh is one of those states.
In addition, violent attacks against Christians and other minorities in India by Hindu extremists have increased in recent years, as a means to intimidate religious minorities and keep them poor and marginalized in India’s caste system.
“More than 1,000 attacks on Christians were reported between the beginning of 2017 and the end of March 2019,” according to ACN.
In September, a Jesuit school and hostel in Jharkhand that ministered to tribal students was brutally attacked by a mob of Hindu extremists. Two tribal students were severely beaten and property and buildings were destroyed or vandalized.
This incident was just one in a recent series of attacks on Christians, Muslims, and others in India by Hindu extremists. Amidst the economic and religious tensions in India, “you have kind of the perfect mix” for attacks such as these, Clancy said. They occur with impunity, as the government simply ignores them or doesn’t take action, Clancy said.
In the wake of the attack in Jharkhand, the school appealed to local and regional authorities, pleading for action to be taken.
Thus, a snapshot of remote northeast India shows yet another example of the Church reaching to the peripheries of society – and the challenges that lie ahead for the protection of indigenous peoples from exploitation by public and private powers.