NEW DELHI—“We are groping in the dark. This is beyond words,” said Bishop Charles Soreng of Hazaribag, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI). He was reflecting on the feelings of the Indian Church in the face of several recent brutal assaults on Catholic religious.

Hardly before the Christian community came to terms with the September parading of Father Christudas through the streets of the Dumka diocese, it was stunned by the October beheading of Jesuit Father A.T. Thomas—both in the eastern state of Bihar. A militant group kidnapped Father Thomas Oct. 24 from a village meeting he was conducting. His headless body—with hands tied behind his back and bearing additional injuries from severe torture—was found on the morning of Oct. 27, in the jungle at Sirca nine miles from Hazaribag.

“The people are stunned. Everyone feels helpless,” Bishop Soreng told the Register. The bishop led the Oct. 28 funeral service of the slain priest whose head has not been recovered. The secretary general said it is “difficult” to determine if the Dumka and Hazaribag incidents are “part of an anti-Christian conspiracy.”

Father Edward Mudavassery, Jesuit provincial of Hazaribag, is bewildered about the brutal murder of one of his brother priests. “We have never faced any threats or harassment from any group though we have been working in the area for over 15 years,” he said.

The slain priest was well-known in the villages for setting up several village schools among poor dalits (low castes) before he went to Manila, the Philippines, in 1995 to pursue a masters degree in sociology. However, his tragic end came not long after arriving to Hazaribag in August. The visit, for field studies related to his degree, was meant to be short; he was supposed to return to Manila in January to complete his studies.

His murder and the naked parading of the Dumka diocesan priest have caused fear and anguish among the country's 16 million Catholics. In a memorandum to the federal president, the prime minister, and the home minister (similar to an attorney general), the Indian Church emphasized that “the repeated incidents of violence against Christian priests have deeply shaken confidence in the administration in Bihar.” The Oct. 28 memorandum urged the federal government “to intervene directly” with the Bihar government in order to apprehend and try the guilty in the “heinous crimes” immediately.

But if the past is a good indicator, the Church can expect little justice. Reliable sources say local police already have clear information on Father Thomas's murderers, but have failed to act on it. Villagers present when the militant group believed responsible for the murder were tying up the priest are reluctant to give testimony since the group threatened them with death if they cooperated with authorities. Even the police fear the group and want the Church to identify the culprits.

“Police investigation and court trials never bring justice, but only waste our time. Often the [local] administration is of no help in such cases,” said Father Varkey Perekkat, head of the Jesuit community in South Asia. About 3,500 of the 3,700 Jesuits under his direction serve in India.

In September 1994, two Catholic priests and a brother were murdered in Gumla in Bihar. The culprits still remain untouched by police. Most police investigations into similar cases over the past two decades—nearly 20 Catholic priests and nuns working for social justice in the area murdered— have gone nowhere.

The murder of Sister Rani Maria in Indore in the Madhya Pradesh state in February 1995 reflects the grave danger in being a Catholic religious working for social justice there. The nun was stabbed in a bus in front of 50 fellow travelers by people opposed to her work—liberating poor tribals from the clutches of money lenders. The man who led the fatal assault was the local leader of the pro-Hindu party. Locals were too intimidated to testify against him in court. Even the memorial for the murdered nun, built by local people, was pulled down by her enemies.

Five years earlier, nuns at Our Lady of Grace convent at Gajruala, 65 miles south of Delhi, were raped. Afterwards, Christian educational institutions across the country closed and demanded that the perpetrators of the crime be arrested. Two years later, the federal Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) announced a reward of 100,000 rupees ($3,000) for “useful clues” about the assault. The CBI inquiry was ordered only after the Indian Church took their complaint with the Uttar Pradesh state police to the Supreme Court.

The police had shown the nuns several lineups and asked them to identify the culprits. But the police never brought in the real offenders. Instead, they used criminals who were in jail at the time of the crime for their lineups. Insiders say the police knew the culprits but were under pressure to protect them. Fed up with the inquiries and the farcical trial, the nuns themselves wanted the investigation stopped.

The judiciary too has been of little help in cases of crimes against Church representatives. In 1995, the Supreme Court ordered the state government to pay compensation of 250,000 rupees ($8,000) each to two nuns who were raped, and 100,000 rupees each to five nuns who were assaulted. However, Church leaders described the compensation as an “eye-wash to divert public attention” from the police's failure to arrest the culprits even after five years. The leaders said compensation could be “no substitute for justice.”

Though the CBI report recommended action against the police and against government hospital doctors for misconduct in the case, the court did not give an ultimatum to the investigating agency to arrest those responsible.

Apparently the only time prompt “justice” came was in 1992 when the men who looted and reportedly raped two nuns from a convent in Punjab state surrendered to the police. That was under pressure from the local people and Sikh militants who did not want to lose the trust of Christian social workers in the troubled state. However, reportedly upon suggestion from the Sikh militants, the arrested men were “executed” by the police.

Another incident occurred at Ghaziabad, nine miles south of downtown New Delhi. The Franciscan Sisters of Mary of the Angels had barely settled into their convent there in April 1995, when assailants broke in at midnight and beat five nuns and their maid with iron rods. The assailants neither ransacked the convent nor asked for money.

Their motive seemed clear-to discourage mission work among the poor slum people as the nuns with their new convent were beginning. The trauma of the assault continues to haunt the nuns. Even after two and half years, Sister Effy, now 47, suffers from memory losses, while another victim of the attack, Sister Angeli, continues to have blackouts. Though Sister Cecil, then local superior, was not seriously injured, she is still haunted by the memory of the battering of the others.

“Vested interests opposed to our work among marginalized tribals and dalits have had a hand in most of the attacks,” said Father Mudavessery. “They also do not want the Church to grow in their areas. So they are trying to use such attacks to divert [us] from our work—keeping us preoccupied with bureaucracy, police, and courts.”

To prevent organized assaults on Church workers in northern and eastern India, some bishops have even started saying it is time for the religious “not to stay in isolated places.” But the real impact is evident in southern Kerala state which accounts for more than 60% of India's 110,000 vocations.

“Some parents are now reluctant to allow their children to join congregations working in remote areas,” said Father Alex Ooken, General Superior of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate and former national secretary of the Conference of Religious in India. The parental concern seems justified—all victims of rape and most of the victims of murder have been Keralites including the recently beheaded Jesuit.

Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi.