MUMBAI, India – A leading government official in India has condemned “malicious attempts to malign” the Missionaries of Charity.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted on Thursday that the religious order founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta – more popularly known simply as Mother Teresa – is being targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is affiliated with a Hindu nationalist group.
Two women affiliated with the order, one a religious sister and the other an employee, were arrested last week after being accused of trying to sell a baby from a shelter for unwed mothers in the Indian state of Jharkhand.
Police say that a couple reportedly paid $1,760 for a child to a woman who worked at the shelter, but she later took the child back without refunding the money.
A spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity told the press the order stopped dealing with child adoption in India back in 2015.
“We are completely shocked by what has happened in our home. It should never have happened. It is completely against our moral conviction we are carefully looking into this matter. We will take all the necessary precautions that it will never happen again,” a spokesperson told Crux after the incident was reported.
The case is the latest in a series of incidents being seized on by Hindu nationalists to attack the Church in the country, which makes up less than 2 percent of the population. Pastoral letters issued by the archbishops of Delhi and Goa angered BJP politicians, who accused Church leaders of stirring up sectarian tension.
Recently, the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church – Cardinal George Alencherry – was involved in a scandal over land sales which drew the intervention of the Vatican, and another bishop was accused of rape by a nun.
The alleged child-selling has drawn criticism from Hindu nationalists of the charitable work done by Christian groups in the country, which they say is done for the purpose of proselytism.
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, to serve the poorest of the poor. She died in 1997 and was declared a saint in 2016 by Pope Francis.
Kolkata is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, and the state’s chief minister was quick to defend its adopted daughter.
Mother Teresa herself set up Missionaries of Charity. And now they are also not being spared. Malicious attempts to malign their name. The Sisters are being targeted. #BJP want to spare no one. Highly condemnable. Let MOC continue to do their work for the poorest of the poor
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) July 12, 2018
Banerjee’s tweet reads: “Mother Teresa herself set up Missionaries of Charity. And now they are also not being spared. Malicious attempts to malign their name. The Sisters are being targeted. #BJP want to spare no one. Highly condemnable. Let MOC continue to do their work for the poorest of the poor.”
Father Frederick D’Souza, the former director of Caritas India, said the incident is a sign of the strained relationship between the Church and the state of Jharkhand, which is located in the east of the country.
The state has a large proportion of India’s marginalized tribal people, who exist outside of Hinduism’s traditional caste system, and many of them become Christian – Jharkhand has a Christian population double the national average.
The state government is run by the BJP.
“The Church in Jharkhand has been in the forefront working on the various rights of the tribal people,” D’Souza told Crux. “The Church has provided quality education, health, and livelihood for the tribal people.”
The priest said there has been increased harassment of Christians in the state recently and praised the work the Church does with marginalized and trafficked children.
“Sometimes sisters in their simplicity of serving the poor may have sometimes stumbled a bit but definitely they don’t deserve these allegations and such treatment,” D’Souza said.
Police have now asked India’s central government to freeze all the bank accounts of the religious order.
“The books [of the order] are audited annually as per the law and the details filed with the government,” Father Peter Martin, a lawyer who is helping the Missionaries of Charity, told ucanews.com. “If there was any anomaly or misleading transaction, the revenue department should have raised concern. But nothing of the sort has happened. This move is absurd.”
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the auxiliary bishop of Ranchi, defended the Missionaries of Charity, saying they are “absolutely innocent.”
Speaking to NDTV on Thursday, the bishop said the police forced the accused nun to sign a confession.
He said the authorities are “treating the whole of Mother Teresa’s organization as a criminal gang.”
“They are sending 30-40 policemen to each house… the sisters are protesting: Their records are being seized. These are very simple nuns. They don’t want to face the press [and] police,” Mascarenhas said.
“I am appealing to all, allow them to do their work in peace.”