MUMBAI – In what many Catholic leaders are describing as the latest act of harassment and persecution directed at India’s Christian minority, a Carmelite nun has been arrested in the country’s central Chhattisgarh state and charged with abetting the suicide of a sixth grade girl in a school where she taught.
Sister Mercy, who uses only one name, is from the southern state of Kerala and was taken into custody Feb. 7, after the body of the dead girl was found hanging from a ceiling fan in her home. According to police sources, the girl left behind a note in which she complained of having been “tortured” by the nun.
If found guilty of the charge, Sister Mercy could face a sentence of up to ten years in prison.
As rumors began to spread Feb. 5 after the discovery of the girl’s body, a crowd of Hindu nationalist activists reportedly gathered in front of the Catholic school which she attended, demanding the arrest of Sister Mercy and the school principal, who is also a Carmelite nun.
After the arrests, police closed the school and have deployed personnel to guard it until the situation stabilizes.
Spokespersons for the local church have denied the charges against Sister Mercy.
“It is not yet clear whether the suicide note is original. But the allegations against the nun are false,” said Father Lucian Kujur, director of education in the Ambikapur diocese, told Crux.
According to Kujur, Sister Mercy never actually had the deceased girl in class, since she teaches in the secondary level of the same institution, called Carmel School, which has more than 8,000 students of both sexes.
The lone contact between the nun and the girl, according to Kujur, came when Sister Mercy found her and three other girls spending time in a bathroom rather than attending class. She then collected their identity cards, Kujur said, and instructed them to return the next day with their parents to meet the principal.
Kujur added that there are no complaints against Sister Mercy, and that she had no other interaction with the girl who took her own life.
Brother Shaji Joseph, principal of another Catholic school in Ambikapur, circulated a WhatsApp message in which he too defended the accused nun, saying “what actually happened has nothing to do with so many stories going around.”
Joseph blamed the arrest on pressure created by the Hindu activists.
“When the news [of the suicide] came out, the famous organizations known to everyone today became very active all night worked about collecting crowd in front of the school and created a huge problem in the city,” he wrote. “The sister’s arrest initially was done to pacify the crowd and restore normalcy.”
Joseph said that initially the Carmelite sisters did not have a lawyer to contact, but they’re currently pursuing options and hope that Sister Mercy may soon be released on bail.
“I have written this for awareness of how small actions can become so bad at this time,” he wrote. “Please pray for Carmel School sisters, and very especially Sr. Mercy.”
In a comment to Crux, Joseph added, “It is a very sad incident calling the society to consider the health and care of our children.”
Bishop Antonis Bara of Ambikapur likewise voiced concern for the child in the case.
“My deepest condolences to the family on the most tragic loss of their child. We share in their grief and extend our support,” he told Crux. Our prayers are with the family. May God grant them strength and comfort during this difficult time.
“We also seek justice for Sister Mercy,” Bara said.
Chhattisgarh state is governed by the right-wing Hindu BJP party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and local Christians say they have faced increasing pressure, including charges under the state’s anti-conversion laws for allegedly illicit proselytism, especially among poor members of indigenous tribal groups.
In 2022, more than 1,000 tribal Christians were forced to flee their homes in Chhattisgarh when a mog of Hindu radicals assaulted them, looted their houses, destroyed the crops and even interfered with the burial of their dead.
The new arrest in Chhattisgarh came just as the Catholic bishops of India were wrapping up a plenary assembly in Bangalore, where increasing attacks and harassment of Christian institutions and personnel in the country was a major theme. Among other things, the bishops complained of destruction of homes and churches and harassment of those serving orphanages, hostels, educational and healthcare institutions on “false allegations of conversion.”
At the same time, the newly elected leader of India’s Syro-Malabar Church, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, met Modi on Feb. 9, for what Thattil described as a “cordial” and “friendly” conversation in which political matters were not discussed, nor was the possibility of a papal visit to India on the agenda.
While some observers objected to Thattil meeting Modi without pressing him on anti-Christian persecution, the prelate defended the encounter.
“When a government is elected, it is our responsibility to cooperate with them,” he said.
Critics of Thattil’s predecessor as head of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal George Alencherry, among other things charged that he had cultivated a cozy relationship with the BJP and Modi allies in exchange for political favors, especially in the southern Kerala state where the church is based.