India protests over 'tribal' Virgin Mary and baby Jesus

The controversial statue of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus The 'tribal' statue of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus was installed on 26 May

A new statue which shows Virgin Mary and baby Jesus as tribals has been installed in a church in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, sparking off protests from non-Christian tribal groups. Amarnath Tewary reports on the controversy.

Wearing a red-bordered white sari, red blouse, necklace and bangles and holding baby Jesus in a cloth sling, the statue has invited both anger and astonishment.

Unveiled by Cardinal Telesphor P Toppo on 26 May, the statue stands tall in the local church in Singhpur village, 15km (nine miles) from the state capital, Ranchi.

Start Quote

Bandhan Tigga

It's an attempt to convert Sarna tribals to Christianity”

End Quote Bandhan Tigga Non-tribal leader

But ever since its installation, the statue has attracted the ire of some non-Christian tribal groups who are demanding its immediate removal.

Some of them even took out a protest march on 17 June in Ranchi in support of their demand.

"It is for the first time in the state that Mother Mary and baby Jesus have been portrayed as tribals. What was the need for it?" asks Bandhan Tigga, head priest of Sarna Society, which represents non-Christian tribal population of the state.

In Jharkhand, 27% of the population or 8.6 million people are tribals and only 3% of the tribal population is Christian.

"Showing Mother Mary as a tribal is a part of the larger design to make the tribal population believe that she was from their community and confuse them," says Mr Tigga.

"A 100 years from now, people here would start believing that Mother Mary was actually our tribal goddess. It's an attempt to convert Sarna tribals to Christianity."

'Nothing wrong'

Mr Tigga and his society leaders have asked the local Archbishop's House to remove the statue.

"If they do not remove it, a nationwide protest will be organised," he warns.

The Christian tribals, however, see nothing wrong with the statue - as residents of Jharkhand, they says they have "equal rights" over the red-bordered white sari and other tribal outfits.

"What's wrong in this? It's just like the Chinese, Japanese, Irish, German or even the African version of Mother Mary and baby Jesus," says Father Augustine Kerketta at the Archbishop House in Ranchi.

Protest March by Sarna Society in Ranchi Some tribal groups have protested demanding the removal of the statue

"It happens everywhere as part of enculturation of the local tradition."

Cardinal Telesphor P Toppo is away in Rome and in his absence, Father Augustine has been nominated to negotiate with the non-Christian tribals over the controversial statue.

Father Augustine downplays the protests saying only a section of the non-Christian tribal population took part in them.

He says the charges levelled by the Sarna Society are "without any substance" and accuses some politicians of being behind the protests.

"General elections are due early next year and some people may wish to divide the Christian and non-Christian tribal populations for political gains," he says.

Nevertheless, he hopes to resolve the issue at their next meeting scheduled for 14 July.

But leaders of the Sarna Society say they do not expect much to come out of the meeting unless the statue is removed.

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