In India, Catholic priest jailed for alleged hate speech after political remarks stir controversy

Flag of India at the Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square on January 17, 2016. / Alexey Gotovsky/CNA

Denver Newsroom, Jul 28, 2021 / 14:01 pm (CNA).

A Catholic priest in southern India who made political remarks, including criticism of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has been arrested for alleged hate speech.

The priest, Father George Ponnaiah, denies the charges, and has suggested that videos criticizing his remarks were deceptively edited. He apologized for any hurt he may have caused.

“My speech has been edited and circulated on social media to show that I hurt the sentiments of Hindu brothers and sisters,” Father Ponnaiah said, according to UCA News. “None of us on the dais said anything hurting religious sentiments. If my speech hurt anyone, I apologize wholeheartedly.”

Ponnaiah is a vicar of the Diocese of Kuzhithurai in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu. He was arrested July 24 and detained by a trial court for 15 days, as police filed criminal charges against him for his July 18 remarks. Some Hindu activists had threatened to stage protests on July 28 if the priest was not arrested.

The diocese’s administrator rejected any form of disparaging comments, but also said the diocese would provide legal aid to Ponnaiah.

His alleged controversial remarks came at a meeting in Arumani in Kanyakumari district, attended by Christian and Muslim leaders and representatives of various organizations. The meeting had been convened to condemn closures of churches, bans on conducting prayer meetings, and denial of permits to build churches.

The meeting also aimed to pay tribute to Fr. Stanislaus Lourduswamy, popularly known as Father Stan Swami, who spent the last eight months of his life jailed on terror charges for his activism on behalf of Indian society’s lowest castes. The Jesuit died in early July at the age of 84. He had several health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, and had recently been admitted to a Mumbai hospital under a court order after he was infected with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

Ponnaiah, who is secretary of the Democratic Christian Forum, said that several political leaders “should not forget that they did not get any Hindu votes. They should not forget that their victory was the alms given by Christians and Muslims casting their votes.” The priest reportedly claimed that the Tamil Nadu state legislator M.R. Ghandi, a BJP member, was the lead suspect in the 1982 Mandaikadu religious riots that killed seven people, the Times of India reports.

The priest’s remarks were publicized in a video that went viral. He reportedly criticized leaders of the state’s ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government and leaders of the BJP, which others have criticized for extreme Hindu nationalism. Ponnaiah criticized PJB leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, UCA News reports.

His critics also claim he made disparaging remarks about the personified goddess “Mother India” and the Hindu religion.

Archbishop Antony Pappusamy of Madurai, the current apostolic administrator of the priest’s diocese, said he was not sure if Ponnaiah really made the statements attributed to him, but voiced disapproval of these remarks.

“The priest is head of an association called the Democratic Christian Forum and all the comments attributed to him were made in his personal capacity,” the archbishop told UCA News.

Pappusamy said the Church and its staff always work for greater harmony and peace between people and religious communities of different backgrounds, adding “we believe in universal brotherhood.”

The archbishop said he could not speak to Ponnaiah to know the facts of the situation, but added that he has approved legal help for the priest.

“The diocese will fight the case legally and an attorney has been appointed to move bail for the priest,” he said.

The priest is accused of violating several laws: promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence and language; insulting religion or religious beliefs with deliberate malice to outrage the feelings of any class; and creating or promoting ill will between classes. 

He also faces charges that he conducted the meeting in violation of health protocols that aim to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

As of 2020, the anti-persecution charity Open Doors ranked India as the 10th worst persecutor of Christians worldwide. It said persecution of religious minorities has increased since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party gained power in 2014, with thousands of such incidents every year. It accused the ruling party of allowing extremists to attack Christians with impunity.

Hate crimes against Christians in India increased by 40% in the first half of 2020 despite a three-month nationwide lockdown, according to a report last year from the ecumenical group Persecution Relief. That report ranked Tamil Nadu the second-worst state in India for such crimes, with the worst being Uttar Pradesh state.

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