MUMBAI, India – A Jesuit priest convicted of participating in a gang rape in India is “totally innocent,” according to the local archbishop.

Jesuit Father Alphonse Aind and five other people were sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in the eastern state of Jharkhand on May 17 for raping five women who were part of an NGO advocating for the rights of India’s marginalized Tribal community.

On June 19, 2018, the victims were performing a street play In the remote village of Kochang to spread awareness of human trafficking in the region.

They were from “Asha Kiran” (“Ray of Hope”), a rehabilitation center managed by the Ursuline Sisters, located about 10 miles south of Ranchi, the state capital.

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During the performance, five of the women were abducted because, according to police, it expressed sentiments against “Pathalgadi” — a movement asserting tribal autonomy over villages as per provisions in the Indian constitution.

Aind had invited the team to the village to conduct the trafficking awareness campaign. The priest, the two nuns accompanying the team (who were not abducted), and two others were taken in for questioning on June 21, 2018, and the priest was arrested two days later on a set of charges, including being part of a conspiracy, kidnapping, wrongful confinement and not reporting a crime. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Christian leaders have accused Hindu nationalists of falsely accusing the priest in order to dissuade people from converting. Christians make up about 4.3 percent of the population of Jharkhand, nearly twice the national average. Most of the Christians belong to the Tribal community.

The state is ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

“Because the government is against us and want to malign us, to discredit us, to put fear in us that is why this is happening,” said Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi.

“As far as we know, Father Alphonso is totally innocent – totally innocent – and the case has been created so that he could be imprisoned and attacked in some way,” he told Crux.

“Father Alphonso is very much a peaceful man. He is suffering with Christ and giving witness to his faith and vocation on account of his suffering. The Lord will reward him very much and all of us will get strength through his suffering. And his incarceration will bear fruit for the mission among the Tribals,” the archbishop added.

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Aind said he will appeal the case to the state’s High Court.

Jesuit Father Xavier Soreng, a Ranchi-based social worker lawyer, said the Church is expecting the High Court to overturn the sentence.

“That is the expectation we have at the moment. We are heartbroken to hear the sentence. We have great respect for the order, but we did not expect it,” the priest told Crux. “Father is innocent, and he has been falsely implicated in the case. There are a number of other cases, too, against Christians, like those against the Missionaries of Charity – Sister Conchita is still in prison – and [the accusations of] misuse of foreign currency et cetera.”

Soreng was referring to the case last year in Jharkhand, when a member of the Missionaries of Charity was arrested being accused of trying to sell a baby from a shelter for unwed mothers. A lay employee was also charged in that case.

Toppo said the increased harassment will not deter the Church in its work in the state.

“The Church has a mission that as our Lord Jesus has said, we will keep on serving the poor whether they are Christians or non-Christians, because every human being is a child of God. Hence, we will serve and keep on serving and do as best as we can and I am sure the Lord will help us one day and we will be more free to do the charitable works,” the archbishop told Crux.

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