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India: Christians call on NIA to release 83-year-old pastor

Church groups and civil society leaders in India are protesting against the arrest of an 83-year-old Jesuit priest by the country’s federal counter-terrorism task force on charges of being a Maoist, or extreme Marxist. The Catholic Church in India says he is being punished for protecting the rights of aboriginal people.

The National Investigation Agency arrested Swamy last Thursday from his home in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

Two days before the arrest, Swamy said in a video message posted on YouTube that he feared he would be arrested because he fought against the government’s indiscriminate arrest of thousands of young aboriginal people and local settlers who question big business projects that take away their land.

The government falsely claims that all such protesters are part of an outlawed “Maoist” group, said Swamy, who documents the displacement of tribal, or aboriginal, people as a result of commercial projects like mining, setting up industrial units and the construction of dams on their resource-rich ancestral land.

Several states in India, including Jharkhand, are affected by a Maoist-led insurgency.

“During the past three decades I have tried to identify myself with the Adivasi (aboriginal) people and their struggle for a life of dignity and self-respect,” Swamy said. “As a writer, I have tried to analyze the different issues they are faced with. In this process, I have clearly expressed dissent with several policies, laws enacted by the government in light of the Constitution.”

Swamy was transported to Mumbai city by plane at about 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, where he was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in the Sessions Court, according to the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which further reported that he has been sent to Taloja Jail near Mumbai until Oct. 23.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expressed “deep sorrow and anguish” over his arrest.

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“According to our reports, Fr. Stan has for decades been working to protect the rights of the Adivasis (aboriginals), especially their land rights. This could have worked against the interests of certain people. When questioned during the months of July-August 2020 by authorities, Fr. Stan Swamy fully cooperated with investigating agencies and has provided detailed statements, claiming to be innocent in the case,” CBCI said.

“It is difficult to comprehend the plight of an octogenarian with several morbidities, like Fr. Stan Swamy to have to undergo such difficulties during this pandemic in which even a normal healthy person would hesitate to travel or would never travel risking one’s life.”

The Catholic body called on the authorities to “immediately release” Swamy, who is originally from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

A human rights activist, Xavier Dias, who is close to Swamy, told Indian media that the priest had publicly disagreed with the Catholic Church.

“He was depressed that the Church sided with the elites,” The Indian Express quoted Dias as saying. “He said big institutions run by Jesuits taught in English medium, leaving behind the poor who did not understand the language. He demanded that schools run by Jesuits should be converted to Hindi medium so that the common people may benefit.”

CSW’s founder president, Mervyn Thomas, said in a statement, “We have grave concerns about the Indian authorities’ handling of the investigation and their heavy-handed approach towards a human rights activist who has long spoken out for the rights of the tribal community.”

Thomas said a “worrying trend” is visible in India “where voices speaking out for truth and justice are being suppressed.”

The Indian government is increasingly being seen as heavy-handed. In June, New Delhi denied entry visas to representatives of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom who had planned to investigate reports of persecution of Muslims and Christians following the release of its report that designated India as a “Country of Particular Concern.”

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