Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Catholic Church in Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh is a state in the remote northeastern corner of India. Its border with China is disputed, and even Indian citizens from outside need permission to travel into the state. This line from a recent article on religious freedom in India by John Allen caught my eye: "In the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the eastern border with China, where Catholicism arrived barely 25 years ago, there are today 180,000 Catholics out of a total population of 800,000."

I was intrigued: normally one hears about such increases in the Christian population due to the missionary efforts of evangelicals (can one say Nepal?). It was unusual, to say the least, to see such a dedication to mission to the unchurched by Catholics.

What's fascinating about the story of the rise of the Church in Arunachal Pradesh is that it was lead by lay people. Here is an interview with Bishop Kattrukudiyil of the Diocese of Itanagar (the capital) published by Aid to the Church in Need.
He explained how the Church in Arunachal Pradesh was unique, in that it spread thanks largely to lay faithful because of the ban on missionaries from outside the region.

He said it was only thanks to contact with a dynamic parish on the border with neighbouring Assam that Catholicism was able to enter the region.

The parish in Hamutty attracted visitors from Arunachal Pradesh who returned home as catechists and soon the Church spread to the point where in the early 1990s converts became government ministers and insisted that priests finally be allowed to work in the region.
There are now two Diocese in the state.

The first church was built only in 1993. According to this UCAN news report, Mother Teresa was present at the dedication. In July of this year, a famous missionary (Br. Prem Bhai, a Benedictine lay brother) who had worked zealously to spread the faith, died. This is from the brief CNA article about Br. Prem:
Brother Prem Bhai, a Benedictine missionary who endured repeated arrest, imprisonment, beatings and wore disguises to evangelize in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, died on June 28 in Colombo, Sri Lanka after suffering a heart attack the previous day.

For almost 25 years Brother Prem's missionary work in Arunachal Pradesh continued despite government laws that subjected those caught to fines of 10,000 rupees and two years imprisonment.

"Police always used to follow me. I was arrested eight times and imprisoned five times for preaching. I never stayed in jail for more than a day though – the Christian people always managed to get me released," Brother Prem said in a 2006 interview with the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). ACN supported Brother Prem's work by building a prayer center.
(Here's a report of his funeral, which drew thousands of the faithful. A similar report from UCAN)

Remarkably, Arunachal Pradesh is one of six states that has anti-conversion laws on the books.

Northeastern India is culturally (and racially) different from the rest of the country. Society is tribal. Caste doesn't really exist. The languages are Sino-Tibetan. Since the 19th century, Christian missionary work has borne much fruit ... for instance, the state of Nagaland is largely Baptist!

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